AN independent inquiry is to be launched into the conduct of the leader of Southampton City Council following a Daily Echo investigation.
The council’s standards chief last night said he would be commissioning an investigation into whether or not Richard Williams and other councillors breached the authority’s code of conduct and other rules.
The Daily Echo yesterday revealed how Cllr Williams misled the public over the reasons for the resignation of a Cabinet member – and that his fellow Labour councillors later stood by him when they were told.
Opposition councillors last night welcomed the inquiry but repeated calls for Cllr Williams to resign and save taxpayers’ money.
Previously unpublished email correspondence obtained by the Daily Echo shattered claims by Cllr Williams that his efficiency tsar Keith Morrell had told him he had to quit due to ill health – when in fact he was fighting fit and had resigned on policy grounds.
A copy of Cllr Morrell’s resignation letter to Cllr Williams, published for the first time yesterday, made clear the council leader knew health concerns played no part in Cllr Morrell’s decision to quit.
Yet Cllr Williams requested the council’s communications department put out a statement to thousands of council staff and media saying Cllr Morrell had stepped down due to ill health.
Despite Cllr Morrell himself later admitting it was a “fiction” agreed at Cllr Williams’ suggestion to avoid a political embarrassment over a policy split, Cllr Williams has repeatedly insisted councillor Cllr Morrell only cited health reasons for his resignation.
Further emails revealed the city’s Labour councillors all knew their leader had given misleading statements about the reasons for Mr Morrell’s departure when they supported him in an unprecedented vote of no confidence brought by opposition Tories for “bringing the council into disrepute”.
Southampton City Council’s monitoring officer Mark Heath said: “In light of allegations made about the conduct of councillors, I will be commissioning an investigation to establish whether there has been a breach of the council’s code of conduct, adopted protocols and/or the national Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity.
“The report and any findings of a breach will be considered by me and reported to full council.”
Opposition Tory leader Cllr Royston Smith said: “It’s the right thing to do. However, it’s going to cost a significant amount of public money to carry out to discover what we probably already know and Cllr Williams could save that money now by doing the decent thing and resign.”
Cllr Williams said last night: “I welcome the investigation that Mr Heath and the council are bringing forward. I think that’s the right thing, and the right way forward.”