A senior Lincolnshire district and county councillor has been found guilty of inappropriate behaviour towards a female council colleague.
Conservative Councillor Peter Coupland, financial portfolio holder at South Holland District Council, pulled the woman towards him, put his arm around her and made several references to being in the “back row of a cinema” during an official visit to London in October 2018.
It was alleged that his actions “held sexual connotations”. There was disagreement between independent members, however, the panel did not comment further as sexual connotations do not fall under the council code of conduct.
The incident is said to have occurred while Councillor Coupland and the woman, who works in a shared role between the authority and Breckland Council, were working on a project.
The panel heard how a photograph was taken of the incident, which is said to have left the complainant in “considerable distress”.
The investigation said there was “no suggestion… anything in [the complainant’s] behaviour had invited Councillor Coupland to put his arm around her.
It can be seen from the photograph that [the complainant] is gripping her bag tightly, indicating she is not at ease.”
It wasn’t until two weeks later the woman consulted a HR company because she said she was not sure at that point if she was “overreacting” at the time.
In his own evidence, Councillor Coupland said he had put his arm on the chair for the photo “in a pose” and denied “pulling her in”.
He said he could not recall the comments nor anything that happened which “gave him the impression he had upset” the woman.
He told the panel he would have apologised if he had done so, and that he had “no nasty or bad intentions”. He added he probably doesn’t know “her level of good banter”.
The panel concluded that Councillor Coupland failed to abide by the council’s code of conduct, and had “brought his office into disrepute”, showing a “lack of respect and leadership that was essential to his office”.
It recommended he be given additional training in relation to equality, diversity, culture and ethics.
The evidence, including statements from others in view of the incident, is set to be heard by members of the Full Council on Wednesday.
In a statement, Councillor Coupland said: “ I am pleased that the independent person categorically advised the hearing panel that he did not believe my action, comments or photo had any sexual aspects and the hearing panel agreed with him and so the complainants allegation was not upheld in the decision notice.
My only breach of conduct was being disrespectful to the female officer by placing my arm around her while posing for a photo in public.
“I have offered my apologies to the staff member.”
A spokesperson for South Holland District Council said: “The Council takes all such complaints very seriously, and accordingly the matter was assessed in line with our code of conduct and procedures.
“The Council is absolutely committed to ensuring our staff are treated with dignity and respect.”
The South Holland And The Deepings Conservative Association has been approached for comment.
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