Sheffield Council has said it would not discipline any councillor who ran a fake social media profile which abused members of the public and political opponents after clearing a Labour councillor of being behind such an account following a month-long investigation.
The ruling was made by the authority’s legal director Gillian Duckworth after concluding an investigation into whether one such alleged Twitter account which repeatedly sent derogatory messages to anti-tree felling campaigners and the city’s Lord Mayor, Green Party councillor Magid Magid, over a series of months was connected to a Labour councillor called Neale Gibson.
The council’s position was described today as “giving carte blanche for councillors to do this and not be held to account”.
It follows an investigation into a complaint relating to a Twitter account using the name ‘John Blake’ and the handle @johnbwalkley.
The council had investigated an allegation that the account was being run by a Labour councillor called Neale Gibson, who represents the city’s Walkley ward and is cabinet adviser for transport and development.
Coun Gibson has previously strongly denied any link to the account and there is no suggestion he has any connection to it.
The investigation did separately find Coun Gibson had sent messages which could be interpreted as “insensitive and unprofessional” from his Twitter account.
The conclusion of Gillian Duckworth, who is monitoring officer and director of legal and governance, was that “it was not definitively clear that the alleged false account @johnbwalkley belongs to Councillor Gibson”.
But the council findings then added: “Even if the account did belong to him, he would not be acting in his official capacity as a councillor when using it and therefore the issue would fall outside the scope of the Members’ Code of Conduct.”
Complainant Sally Goldsmith, a member of the city’s tree campaign groups who have been fighting against council felling plans, has complained about the ruling to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, citing Sheffield Council’s code of conduct that councillors must act with integrity and honesty and have a general obligation to “treat others with respect”.
She said she was surprised at the council’s conclusion that dealing with any hypothetical councillor who ran a false Twitter account which posted offensive material would fall outside its remit.
“What if Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn had a fake account which they used to abuse people? There would be an outcry,” she said.
“By saying this issue falls outside their remit, it seems to make a mockery of the code of conduct. It gives carte blanche for councillors to do this and not be held to account.”
Since being set up in March 2017, the @johnbwalkley account sent tweets to the Lord Mayor calling him “a disgrace” and “an idiot”, accused tree protesters of racially abusing an Amey worker, referred to the campaigners as “tree hugger thugs” and sent one individual who said they were feeling emotional about plans to remove war memorial trees a message describing them as a “sad sad person”.
The account, which was deleted from Twitter last week, was initially set up using a stock photo of a middle-aged model taken from the internet before this was changed to an image of a tree.
A statement from Sheffield Council monitoring officer Gillian Duckworth sent to The Yorkshire Post said: “The council has a process within its constitution for dealing with complaints against elected members.
“This complaint was dealt with in accordance with that process.
“A complainant has a right to complain to the Local Government Ombudsman if they believe the council has not followed the correct procedure.”
The investigation has come to light days after another Sheffield Labour councillor, Mohammad Maroof, who represents Nether Edge and Sharrow, was suspended pending investigation for sending a photograph of a topless woman to a WhatsApp group of mothers while they were giving a presentation on knife crime during a council meeting on Wednesday. Coun Mahroof said the incident had been an “honest mistake” after the image was sent to him earlier in the day and automatically saved into his phone before he accidentally forwarded it on.
At the same meeting, a plan to introduce a new code of conduct for Sheffield’s Lord Mayors - described by opponents as an attempt to ‘rein in’ current incumbent Magid Magid - was dropped after Labour members abstained from a vote on the matter following procedural confusion.
Coun Gibson did not respond to repeated attempts from The Yorkshire Post to reach him for comment.