Once Andrew Bowles waddled supreme across Faversham and Swale, claiming to work tirelessly 60 to 70 hours a week. Humbled by the voters in the recent elections, he can now use his spare time to sort out a pressing problem much closer to home, having returned from his holiday in Portugal.
The last elections for Selling Parish Council were uncontested as there were fewer candidates than vacancies. Only five councillors stood in the recent elections and one has already resigned, making three vacancies. Several former councillors declined to stand this time round and three parish clerks have resigned in recent years.
For nearly twenty five years, council meetings have been disrupted, with endless, line by line arguments over procedural issues, tiny budget amounts and the minutiae of local government business. At the heart of the acrimony – which has infected parish business since the mid 1990’s – is one councillor, Amanda Saunders.
At the first meeting after the elections, Andrew Bowles became Chairman and appointed her as Interim Parish Clerk, as well as being a councillor. Whilst not illegal, this is against the spirit of best practice for parish councils as there are clear conflicts of interest.
According to recent parish minutes, she has often been the single vote against the rest of the council (see later in story). Despite many complaints about her over the years, no action has been taken by any outside body.
The Swale Council Monitoring Officer, Donna Price has refused to act on recent two complaints. The first, on the grounds that the complaint had already been reported to the police and the second, saying that the matter had been resolved because a councillor had apologised for Mrs Saunders’ behaviour on behalf of the Council.
The start of the trouble
Amanda Saunders is a very controversial figure in Selling, ever since she was dismissed as Town Clerk back in 1995. Shortly before she was dismissed and ever since, she has run a relentless campaign against the parish council, making allegations of illegal and unlawful behaviour, dishonesty and incompetence against councillors. The cost to local ratepayers has run into thousands of pounds.
Her first complaint, immediately after she was dismissed, was over the 1993/1994 council audit. She filed an eight point complaint with the external auditor. Apart from some minor procedural issues, Price Waterhouse rejected her complaints. The cost to Selling Parish Council was £11,239 plus VAT, increasing the council tax for each house in the parish by £16.50.
Despite this, she has continued what one councillor, a local vicar called a “vendetta” ever since.
Letters seen by The Faversham Eye from councillors and parishioners over the years have complained about her behaviour. The pattern is consistent. In 1995, one parishioner described her behaviour as “rude, tiresome and unnecessary.”
The following year, a councillor wrote to the clerk after a meeting in 1996, describing her behaviour as “unwarranted,” “dishonourable” and “shameful”. At the meeting, she accused the council of making decisions behind closed doors, an accusation the chairman flatly denied. When he said he would swear this on the bible, according to witnesses, she replied “it must be a rubber bible.” The councillor wrote: “At this point the whole place erupted in spontaneous anger. Every person in the room, councillors and public alike could not hold back their feelings of absolute disgust by the utterly unjustified and totally disgraceful remark.” He wanted “nothing short of a fully worded and unreserved public apology from Mrs Saunders.” To the best of our knowledge, no apology was received.
In May 1999, six councillors described themselves as “tired and disillusioned” and resigned together, announcing they would no longer serve.
The Reverend Nicholas Stacey then persuaded six local people, including himself to stand. They did and duly got elected, with Mrs Saunders bottom of the poll. As the new Chairman, he said his first priority was to appoint a parish clerk, a position which had been vacant for a year, as no one had responded to the ads, a situation he attributed to the reputation that Selling had acquired in the parish clerk community. He also met PWC, challenging them on the scale of their fees, though he noted that, “regrettably PWC have failed to comply”.
Although he had been involved in the life of the village for 25 years, the reverend remarked that he had never met Mrs Saunders, only knowing her by reputation. He added that she took no part in any village organisation and did not send her children to Selling primary school.
The following summer, the Reverend Nicholas Stacey, as Chairman of Selling Parish Council lobbied Chris Edwards, the Chief Executive of Swale Borough Council. Edwards then wrote to Price Waterhouse (PWC) explaining that the councillors were “extremely concerned” about her complaints and “the potential costs that flow from them.” He added that the councillors were very unhappy that PWC had spent “considerable time looking at complaints which are unjustified.” As a small parish, they were concerned that the audit fees represent “a disproportionate part of their expenditure.” Mr Edwards wrote that, “I genuinely believe that the people of Selling work very hard to improve the community and find the attentions of Mrs Saunders very dispiriting.” He asked whether, as the external auditor, PWC could look at how these queries were being handled.
In November 2000, the secretary of The Kent Association Parish Councils wrote to the senior solicitor of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), about her behaviour. The letter was titled VEXATIOUS OBJECTORS. He started by pointing out that NALC may already have an awful lot on file already about Selling, describing it as his “favourite horror story.” He pointed out that since she had been dismissed, Mrs Saunders has “constantly queried the legality of everything that the Parish Council does. We have given more advice to Selling than to any other parish and have ourselves been threatened with legal action. You know I believe the Parish Council to be acting as correctly as they are able and about trying circumstances, I do not believe that the constant attack by Mrs Saunders will ever cease.”
These were prophetic words.
The continuing financial cost to the parishioners
Mrs Saunders filed another 11 point complaint with Price Waterhouse over the council audit for the 1999/2000 session.
In April 2001, the local MP Andrew Rowe, wrote to the Minister of State, Hilary Armstrong, saying: “She has been defeated at the polls and commands no parish support but she persistently levels accusations of dishonesty and incompetence at the present council. She has now complained again to the auditors… Naturally enough, the council is terrified that after an investigation carried out in secret and under the control of nobody but Price Waterhouse, the council will be billed for another huge sum. The Parish is tiny (about 600 souls) and cannot afford this regular milking” His question to the Minister was this: “It seems to me absurd that there is no way of preventing this kind of abuse. Can you please help me to help them?”
Even though the complaints had now been escalated to a Minister of State, again no outside body did little to help Selling Council, though the Audit Commission did put pressure on PWC, who agreed to carry out their audit at a knockdown rate, only charging £25.80 an hour. The bill still came to £998.28, 20% of the Selling precept. Again, PCW did not uphold a single complaint in any significant way.
The recent minutes of Selling Parish Council meetings show that she has routinely voted against the rest of the councillors on most areas of council business. According to the minutes of the winter 2017 meeting, it appears that she even voted against her own proposal.
Autumn Newsletter Autumn 2017
Cllr Rehal put forward the proposal that the next newsletter would be in
September/early October and this was seconded by Cllr Gibson. All voted in
favour except Cllr Saunders. Cllr Rehal put forward the resolution that all
contributions be sent to Cllr Webb, with Cllr Gibson seconding it. Cllr Saunders suggested that this task should be circulated amongst the council, and Cllr Webb said that if someone else wished to take on this task he would be willing to hand it over. All voted in favour except Cllr Saunders who voted against. Cllr Rehal put forward the resolution that the newsletter be printed by Charing PCC, as in the past. This was seconded by Cllr Gibson. Cllr Webb said that other quotes had been sought but that this was the most affordable. All voted in favour except Cllr Saunders who voted against.
In July 2017, she filed a 30 point complaint against the council, with the external Auditor, PKF Littlejohn. Apart from some minor procedural issues, none of the complaints was upheld. The investigation cost the council £3970.08, adding just over £15 to the council tax bill for every householder.
The latest audit on the Sellling Parish Council website contains the following note from the external auditor, David J Buckett, CPFA DMS, a highly experienced accountant who oversees the accounts of many local councils. He writes, “The Council held a Budget meeting on 14 December 2016 to consider the Budget and Precept requirements for 2017-18. The January 2017 Extraordinary Council meeting formally ratified the Budget and the Precept Request of £10,056 for 2017-18 was approved (Min 3 – 25 Jan 2017). I noted that one Councillor voted against the proposal declaring it “totally illegal”. From the evidence provided to me by the Clerk, this is absolute nonsense.”
He noted at the end of his report: “Clerk advised me of the “bullying” tactics of one Councillor. The Council has a duty of care to its employees and needs to be aware of this duty and take the appropriate action to avoid any grievance scenario. The officers at KALC will be able to advise the Council of its duty of care.”
The unnamed councillor is Amanda Saunders.
The last parish council chair, Dr Ash Rehal, declined to stand again for the Council and wrote in his last parish council newsletter, “in the majority of the councillors views, this is not the best use of public money. Many residents of Selling will find it hard to find this extra money for their council tax next year We are constantly told that “this is the price of democracy” I beg to differ. This is not the price of democracy, it is the price of self-indulgence. Elected councillors should be working on the parishioners’ behalf and not be the cause of extra financial burden on parishioners.”
Who is she?
Amanda Saunders is a local journalist.
In 1990, she joined the Kent Messenger Group as a trainee sub editor, getting a permanent job the following year. Relationships with her fellow workers and her managers deteriorated, not helped by her claim that she could write better articles than her more experienced colleagues, calling a fellow journalist “a thief” and describing a colleague’s diploma as “a piece of training department wallpaper.”
In 1994, she filed a 22 page, 78 paragraph claim against the Kent Messenger Group for unfair dismissal. In it, she said she had been subjected to bullying and harassment. At the time, the Kent Messenger News Editor, Deborah Penn, said she had “never been subject to such vitriolic hatred in all my life” saying she was the one being bullied, not Amanda Saunders.
By a unanimous verdict, the Tribunal agreed with her, deciding that six of Ms Saunders’ seven claims were “not well founded” and “therefore dismissed.” She voluntarily withdrew the seventh claim.
The Tribunal noted that there were “many examples referred to during the course of this case in which the allegations by the Claimant were not supported by the contemporaneous documentation.” In one case, the Tribunal also pointed out that one of her claims was “seriously undermined by her own husband’s witness statement and evidence”.
Selling Parish Council now
Her behaviour and the impact on the community has been an open secret for years, both locally and nationally. The council now consists of just four members, with Amanda Saunders doubling up as clerk. The other two councillors are both new and, given the recent past, it is unlikely that any qualified parish council clerk will apply.
The minutes of the Parish Council meeting in November 2015, note that Councillor Saunders ””again rebuked the clerk”. The minutes then note the following: “As a result of the constant accusations and criticisms, not just at the meetings but constantly throughout the months and the dozens of demanding unreasonable emails, the clerk stated that she could take no more of this and was leaving.” The Vice Chair then said she would leave if the clerk did. The council proposed a motion of confidence in the clerk, which was passed unanimously.
The following year, Councillor Saunders continued her attacks on the clerk. The minutes of the May 2016 parish council meeting contain the following: “Following the constant bombardment of unsubstantiated accusations and criticisms, the clerk felt she could no longer remain at the meeting and stated that she was leaving. It was then proposed and seconded that Cllr Saunders be evicted from the meeting. Cllr Saunders refused to leave, whereupon the Chairman adjourned the meeting for five minutes. Cllr Deal also left the meeting, frustrated by the constant disruption from Cllr Saunders. After quoting Standing Orders 10A for a second time, Cllr Rehal asked Cllr Saunders to leave the meeting, and she again refused. He then barred her from speaking, and the meeting resumed at 9.10pm. [Cllr Cook taking minutes in absence of the Clerk]”
The new Selling Parish Chairman, Andrew Bowles has been intimately aware of the problems caused by Mrs Saunder for years.
The two of them ran the last council meeting. Two parishioners turned up, one of whom was a Mrs Bowles.
Over the years, there have been complaints to the Compliance Officer at Swale Council. A recent one is typical, describing her behaviour as “usually aggressive, abusive and disrespectful.” The letter concludes, “That Selling Parish Council is continually put in a position where it needs to apologise to residents for the behaviour and actions of one of its members is a disgrace and has brought Selling Parish Council into disrepute in a most embarrassingly public way.”
The Faversham Eye asked Swale Borough Council how many complaints it has received over the last five years and a spokesperson said: “We don’t release the number of complaints the monitoring officer receives about parish councils as some may have a lot due to vexatious complainants which would be unfair to include if there's no grounds for investigation found. I can say we have had a number for Selling in the last year, but they were all dismissed on the grounds of there being no public interest in pursuing them. The standards regime for elected members is not generally the most appropriate or effective route to sorting out fundamental governance problems. The monitoring officer has offered assistance to Selling in trying to resolve longstanding relationship difficulties, and it remains to be seen whether, with the new intake of councillors in May, this offer or any similar approaches will be taken up.”
As Selling Parish is now effectively run by councillors Bowles and Saunders, it is unlikely this meeting will take place soon.
In the last two years alone, Coun Saunders has voted against more than 35 proposals made by Selling Parish Council.
Here are just some of the things she has voted against since becoming a councillor:
* Filming council meetings
* Reimbursing other councillors for out-of-pocket expenses
* Paying the Parish Clerk's mileage expenses
* Publishing the parish newsletter
* Appointing a Tree and Pond warden
* Considering the Kent Community Speedwatch scheme
* Agreeing the local church maintenance grant
* Proposals for a new playground
In their own words, this is how four different past Selling Parish Councillors described their experiences:
“I managed to sustain the four year term, but the stress was enormous. I was also shocked by the lack of sanctions, or support for Parish Councils. My experience means that I shall be extremely reticent to volunteer in such a role again!”
“My enthusiasm and willingness to give up my time to improve Selling was boundless. Since then I have had one of the worst experiences of my life. I have been subjected to and witnessed the worst bullying and aggression I have ever encountered. My enthusiasm is gone. My belief in local government is gone. I leave our meetings beyond upset, my blood pressure soaring and, at times, tears falling. Who protects me from this abuse? No one. The whole system is rotten to the core.”
“Such bullying, harassment and abuse, many people in the community would report as having been happening for decades, in very serious fashion, far beyond the bounds that many have ever experienced elsewhere. It has caused previous chairs of the council, on their own admission, the most enormous and almost unprecedented stress.”
“This disgraceful behaviour has wasted time, public money and resources on a huge scale and undermined the democratic capability of the Parish Council to function effectively. Ultimately it has seriously impacted the quality of life for the people of Selling. There is a groundswell of increasingly growing anger and concern in the village that enough is enough. In the 21st century it almost defies belief that this should happen in one of the foundations of our democratic way of life.”
Why the Selling story matters
In Britain we are rightly proud of our democratic heritage, with Faversham having a special place in English history with its own copy of the Magna Carta.
Sadly, the British democratic tradition has died in the parish of Selling, just outside Faversham. There are now only four councillors out of seven places, with one of them doubling up as parish clerk. As revealed by The Faversham Eye’s investigation, many councillors have, over the last two decades, simply walked away. Three clerks have left and, given Selling’s reputation, it is highly unlikely that any competent and qualified official will apply for the job.
At the last parish council meeting, just two parishioners (including the wife of the Chairman) turned up. Quite simply, the people of Selling have had enough. Rather than being the heartbeat of village life, the council is now an empty sideshow.
The reason is simple. Since the mid 1990s, one person, Amanda Saunders has abused the democratic process, bullying fellow councillors, parishioners and clerks alike. So toxic is the atmosphere that no villager with any long-term parish experience, apart from Andrew Bowles will now take part in the democratic process.
It is absolutely right and proper that every citizen should be able to question elected officials, but Amanda Saunders has manipulated her democratic rights to fuel what one parishioner, the local vicar, described many years ago as “a vendetta.” As a councillor, she has routinely voted against every aspect of parish business, no matter how trivial, and made wild accusations of illegal behaviour which have been dismissed by the external auditors.
The cost to Selling has been immense, both financially and emotionally. The parish council is the bedrock of the British democratic process, the base rung underpinning everything else.
Parish meetings should be joyful occasions, a group of well-intentioned locals getting together to give their time freely to promote the greater good for the whole community.
Instead, Selling council meetings have become vexatious, bad tempered, snappy affairs. Councillors, parishioners and a recent clerk have all walked out in disgust and the police been called.
The people of Selling have been routinely let down by all the institutions and bodies, which could – and should – have helped. Instead, what regulatory bodies exist have consistently failed to address the issue. What should be a vibrant, flourishing local democracy in a parish of around 600 in one of the most beautiful parts of Kent, is now a shell.
The citizens of Selling deserve better.
The Faversham Eye has little confidence that the new chairman of Selling Parish Council, Andrew Bowles will do anything to improve matters – after all, he appointed her as interim parish clerk and recently asked her to represent Selling in the parish negotiations with Swale over an unpopular local planning application.
Desperate for help, Selling parish councillor Tanya Bowles emailed her MP Helen Whately in January 2018. Helen Whately did not reply and Tanya resigned a year later.
I am writing to you because I have been following closely the outcome to the harassment and bullying scandal in Westminster last year.
I was surprised workers at Westminster had nowhere to take a complaint. I thought this was just a problem for parish councils.
I live in Selling just outside of Faversham.
Two years ago I joined the village parish council with high hopes of projects to achieve, but so far it has been an awful experience, due to some upsetting and demoralizing bullying.
As a parish councillor I have no boss or anywhere to take a complaint.
It is also virtually impossible to be sacked as a parish councillor. You must either go bankrupt, take a bribe or not turn up for six months. The rule of "bringing a council into disrepute" was taken away so is no redress for bad or bulling behaviour unless criminal.
I hear the unions are involved with Westminster workers. They have said voluntary workers in constituencies should also be offered the same protection from bullying & harassment.
How about the same for Parish Councils?
We do have a governing body called KALC who are fully aware of bullying in parish councils but unable to do anything unless a change of law.
My personal problem has been devastating and with the full backing of our chairman I will be making a complaint to the police for the harassment and bullying that I have received at Selling Parish Council, as it is now effecting my health.
I can not understand how a government-run organization offers zero protection to its volunteer workers. You are not warned before taking up the post involving many hours of voluntary work to better and to help with the smooth running of a community.
The only way to avoid bullying on a Parish Council is to resign and that seems deeply unfair.
I feel it could be useful if this problem was brought to the attention of the government so if changes are made to working conditions in Westminster and constituencies, parish councils may be considered too.
I appreciate you are very busy so thank you for your time.
Kind regards, Tanya Gibson.