Sunderland Liberal Democrat councillor blames lack of training after 'breaking rules' over letter
A city councillor has refused to apologise after being told he broke rules by using official stationery for ‘party political purposes’.
Coun Stephen O’Brien was accused of the breach after using Sunderland City Council resources to send a letter to families in his Sandhill ward.
This included details of a planned bus stop in Grindon; Aldi supermarket at the former Dewhirst site and pothole repairs.
But it prompted Labour’s Michael Mordey, the deputy leader of the council, to complain the correspondence, sent in June 2018, had been an ‘unsolicited party political newsletter’ to promote Coun O’Brien’s opposition Liberal Democrat group.
And following an investigation lasting about two years, the city council’s Standards Committee has published its findings, agreeing with Coun Mordey and concluding ‘there could be no doubt that the letter was designed to confer political credit’.
It added: “Although the letter did not contain a reference to a political party, as Deputy Leader at the time of the Liberal Democrats and Others group, Coun O’Brien was a person identified with a political party.
“Photocopying, postage and the use of the Council logo/letterhead are only to be used for Council business.
“Unsolicited communications of a political nature sent to a large number of residents could not be said to constitute Council business.”
According to the committee, Coun O’Brien had breached three sections of the council’s code of conduct for councillors, including using his position as a councillor for ‘advantage’.
But it also said the letter had not brought the council into ‘disrepute’ or done anything to ‘compromise the impartiality’ of any council workers.
Coun O’Brien has rejected a suggestion by the committee he formally apologise and instead requested training on city council rules, which he says he has not received since becoming a councillor in 2017.
He insisted he hopes to continue as city councillor for Sandhill for ‘many years to come’.
He said: “I’ve never claimed a single penny in expenses, yet they have the audacity to complain when I sent a few letters to local residents to tell them about a new bus stop being installed.
“Letting people know what is going on in their area, making sure their voices are heard, and keeping them informed about important issues like planning applications and changes to local bus services is the right thing to do.
“I was resoundingly re-elected in the local election last year on the basis of my local campaigning and my record of action in the community.”
The Standards Committee’s findings were upheld following an independent review by Gateshead Council.
Coun O’Brien was also accused of the breach alongside former councillor Lynn Appleby.
Coun Appleby was elected as a Liberal Democrat candidate in Coun O’Brien’s Sandhill ward in 2018, but following polling day sat ‘without party badge’ after being accused of sharing offensive social media posts.
She later quit the council ahead of the 2019 round of local elections, where her seat was retained by the Liberal Democrats, who stood a new candidate in her place, Margaret Crosby.