Dorset Council is struggling to keep up with official complaints – with a backlog now developing because the process was put on hold to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

The council deals with complaints, not only about its own staff and councillors, but also from town and parish councils across the county.

Several of the recent complaints involve Shaftesbury Town Council where there has been a series of allegations and counter-allegations with several councillors in open disagreement with each other.  These have included at least one call for a resignation.

Council legal officer, Jonathan Mair, has now been given extra powers to help deal with the mounting number of cases which are subject to a two-part process. It allows him to make the decision at assessment stage whether to proceed, assisted by three councillors. That process will be held in private without the need for a formal meeting.

Cases are first assessed to see if there might be a case to answer and where to proceed a panel of councillors which is set up to then hear the evidence.

Mr Mair said that the process took a lot of time to arrange with hearings online adding to the complexity.

He said that complaints have continued to come in during the Covid period but the assessment sub-committee has not met because of the crisis.

Audit and scrutiny committee member Cllr Noc Lacey-Clarke said he was not happy with effectively taking the assessment decision out of the hands of councillors: “I am uncomfortable with this not going to a designated committee because on a committee the final decision comes down to the councillors, where with this change, it’s my understanding that the final decision will come down to Mr Mair in consultation with us,” he said.

“I’m not in favour of anything which moves that final decision from councillors and passes it to officers instead. It’s important councillors maintain that level of control, especially over complaints and looking into them.”

But Mr Mair said it would be better to get on and deal with the backlog of cases despite a change in democratic accountability :”They say justice delayed is justice denied,” he said.

“They are building up at the moment and we simply don’t have the capacity to run enough virtual meetings,” he said.

The senior officer said that by agreeing the changes it would avoid calling a public meeting which was then opened, and then closed for reasons of confidentiality, thus excluding the media and public.

Mr Mair said the measures would only be in place while the council had the need to hold ‘virtual meetings’ because of pandemic measures.