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Friday, 18 April 2014

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Council leader in 'fake identity' probe

COPELAND Council leader Elaine Woodburn will NOT face investigation over an allegation she used a fake identity to post offensive messages about another user on Facebook.

IS THIS AMY JONES? The photograph used on the Facebook profile

A council panel has ruled that even if Coun Woodburn was found to have been behind the messages, this would not constitute a breach of its code of conduct and no further action will be taken.

The complainant, former Egremont town councillor Chris Ross, alleges that in posts made under the persona of ‘Amy Jones’, Coun Woodburn accused him of being a member of the British National Party (BNP).

Mr Ross also says that ‘Amy Jones’ – whose Facebook profile includes a picture and a biography which describes her as a “middle manager at Copeland” – called him a “deserter” and a “coward” in reference to his time spent in the military.

A Labour Party member, Mr Ross says that the comments were made towards him after he had criticised the local Labour leadership. He named Coun Woodburn as the culprit in a formal complaint made to Copeland in November.

However, in a statement, Coun Woodburn said the accusation was “just another attempt in what seems to be a deliberate smear campaign”.

An assessment panel subsequently met twice and found that, if Mr Ross’ allegations were true, they would not represent a conduct breach. Mr Ross appealed and a review panel which met on December 18 upheld the original decision.

Paul Walker, Copeland Borough Council chief executive, said: “A complaint was received about a councillor, and this was considered within accordance with the council's agreed procedures.

“The assessment panel that considered the complaint concluded it was not appropriate to carry out a full investigation. This decision was appealed, and an independent panel reviewed the decision. They upheld this.”

Mr Ross, 28, says he is “disappointed” with the decision.

“There’s nothing I can do now – I’ve exhausted the process – and it seems that what was said about me is legal and above board,” he said. “If that’s the case, then it’s disappointing but I’d like to see what the people in Copeland think about this.”

The complaint by Mr Ross was made only weeks after Coun Woodburn told The Whitehaven News that she had been targeted by online abusers, and had reported the abuse to the police.

At the time she said: “For too long people have been making comments on Facebook and getting away with it. I understand people are not happy with the council decisions and that their quality of life has been affected, but it does not give them the right to attack me personally.”

The remarks were made anonymously and Coun Woodburn said it was “too easy’’ for people to make personal attacks on websites. “They wouldn’t go up to someone with a disability and say that to their face,’’ she said.

She said she accepted dealing with criticism was part of the job as leader, especially at a time of budget cuts, but said she was “taking a stand’’ when her family was affected by the comments.

When asked by The Whitehaven News if she had posted comments under the pseudonym Amy Jones, Coun Woodburn, said: “For the last few months there has been a constant barrage against both the council and myself personally, this accusation is just another attempt in what seems to be a deliberate smear campaign.

“It would seem Mr Ross found it acceptable to make a complaint against myself without providing any evidence at all, and after been judged by the assessment panel and a further independent panel that both found there was no evidence to support his allegation I now feel I am being judged by social media.

“This is even more cruel, especially after taking action against a person who mocked my disability on Facebook.

“On multiple occasions myself and my family were attacked by Mr Ross on his Facebook site and as many people who know me would testify to if I was going to respond he can be assured I would have in my own name.”

The original assessment panel was made up of Paul Walker and Tim Capper, Copeland’s chief executive and monitoring officer respectively, and independent person, retired St Bees schoolmaster Anthony Payne.

It concluded: “On the allegation that Coun Woodburn set up a Facebook account using a false name, even if it was proven [after investigation], it would be unlikely to amount to an unlawful act or a breach of the Code of Conduct.

“There is also the question of whether Coun Woodburn was acting (if she had done so at all) in her capacity as a councillor, because if she was not, her action could not have been a breach of the code in any event.”

Facebook is unable to release data from de-activated accounts (as Amy Jones’ is) unless it is part of a law enforcement process.

The panel ruled this possibility out, adding that this lack of forensic detail, combined with the nature of Mr Ross’ evidence, would “be unlikely” to lead to finding a breach.

The subsequent review panel was made up of Michael Bonner and Graham Sunderland (the independent chair and nominated member respectively of the Audit and Governance Committee); Clinton Boyce (Copeland’s deputy monitoring officer) and independent person John Graham.

Members agreed that, if found proven, the alleged comments wouldn’t have breached the code and ruled out a full investigation.

It found: “Firstly, we do not consider that Coun Woodburn was acting in her capacity as a council member at the time the statements were made. Councillors are entitled to a personal life and there is no evidence that the entries on Facebook were made otherwise than in her personal time.

“Secondly, if it was proven that Coun Woodburn made the entries, their content or the use of a pseudonym does not, in our opinion, constitute a breach.

“The content are harmless in themselves and no more than political banter.”

The findings of both panels were sent to The Whitehaven News by the complainant. Copeland Council declined to make the findings public.

Copeland councillor Phil Greatorex – a former member of the Labour Executive – also claims to have been targeted online by ‘Amy Jones’. He says he “has not ruled out obtaining legal advice and taking action” to find the culprit.

Have your say

Is this the same council so puffed-up with its own importance that its members 'hold portfolios' for parking or HR, and issue statements to the press as if they're speaking from the steps of 10 Downing Street - yet its members see fit to conduct petty squabbles via Facebook, like bitchy kids with nothing better to do? The letters column each week is full of local residents complaining about the delusions of CBC, their money wasting and tin-pot politicking, and this is hardly the most edifying way to set about redressing that opinion.

Grow up, the lot of you. This whole business makes Copeland look ridiculous.

Posted by Kathryn on 5 January 2014 at 19:12

Someone makes a comment against Elaine Woodburn and the police are called,now this happens and the police are not called... is there any chance of asking the Cumbria PCC Richard Rhodes to explain himself.

Posted by Clive on 31 December 2013 at 14:10

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