Monday 5 March 2012

Brian Coleman standards case - The friends of Brian State their case

Video Courtesy of the Barnet Bugle

Barnet's Standard's Committee conducts hearing into allegations Brian Coleman broke code of conduct from The Barnet Bugle Ltd on Vimeo.

Today the Standards sub committee of Barnet Council decided that yet again Councillor Brian Coleman has breached the standards code by sending offensive emails to residents. Yet again, it has applied no proper sanction for the breach. Yet again, the whole standards process was exposed as a charade and a complete waste of time. Colemans punishment this time? He has been censured and told to apologise to the two people he insulted. How much has this cost Barnet taxpayers? It doesn't seem to occur to Councillor Brian Coleman that his lack of manners and his vanity have, over the years, cost the taxpayer of Barnet enough to employ a teaching assistant for a child with special needs for a year. All of the experts and investigators have to be paid. Why? Because "poor old Brian" suffers from a form of email Tourettes, which causes him to respond abusively to any email, where he doesn't like the opinion of the sender.

I arrived to here Colemans lawyer, Stephen Hocking, yet again trying to defend the indefensible. This is the third standards case in a row he's lost. Andreas Villas Boas had a better record at Chelsea and  yet his services were dispensed with. Perhaps it is time to ask whether the Barnet Tories should find a new lawyer, or is he the only one who is prepared to be associated with them? I have to admit that he didn't have a good hand to play, having had to defend Coleman twice for doing inexplicably stupid things and defend Andreas Tambourides for abusing a fellow Tory Councillor. My advice to Brian? Next time you get an email from someone you don't like, hit delete. Spare your own blood pressure and our taxes the cost of your hurt pride. You are a big boy, so get over yourself.

At the interval, I found myself in conversation with Jonathan Hoffman, joint vice chair of the Zionist Federation. Mr Hoffman and a couple of friends had come down to lend support to Councillor Coleman, as the cause of his email outbursts were emails about Israel. Now I have to confess a lack of knowledge about the Zionist Federation. I'm always keen to hear what people have to say and so we struck up a conversation. Just to set things in perspective, not being Jewish and having no family ties to Israel, I view these matters as Mr Hoffman probably views Irish Nationalist politics. In both cases there are deep historical contexts and views set in stone. I can associate with his passion for his cause on this basis, but I guess I think I can perhaps take a more detatched and objective view of the arguments, rather like Mr Hoffman may, if the subject of the Rev Iain Paisley was raised by me (of course I may have horribly misjudged Mr Hoffmans view of Ireland, if I have I apologise unreservedly - I am merely seeking to illustrate the way we both approach the issue). So anyway, I was keen to find out what exactly motivated Mr Hoffman and friends to give up a Monday to support Mr Coleman, for what I felt was a totally avoidable faux pas.

Mr Hoffman explained that he believed that the people who Mr Coleman insulted deserved no protection from the Standards Code and that Mr Coleman should be free to dismiss their views in any terms he saw fit. He explained that, in his opinion anti Zionism and anti Semitism are exactly the same thing. In this context, he felt that it was necessary to be there supporting Brian Coleman. The problem for me with Mr Hoffmans explanation was that he was having the wrong argument in the wrong place. The committee wasn't there to debate the rights and wrongs of the policies of Israel, or even whether the people Mr Coleman emailed were the spawn of the devil. The committee were there to discuss whether Mr Coleman had broken the rules, which are pretty clear, in responding in the manner he did. Mr Hoffman stated that he agreed with Mr Coleman, that the people he emailed should be "exposed" for their views. He stated that they should be questioned as to their motives for sending Councillor Coleman the email. On this subject, I agreed with Mr Hoffman. I went through the same argument when I took Brian Coleman to the Standards Committee in 2009. Although Councillor Coleman and his brief (Mr Hocking) were allowed to spend two hours denigrating my character, I had no opportunity to address the committee (for the record Israel and anti semitism were not discussed in my case). I would have quite happily locked horns with Mr Hocking about his claims. A system where people can make complaints and then not be given the opportunity to respond is clearly unfair. Mr Hoffman felt that if the complainants had been questioned by Mr Hocking, their arguments would have been "exposed for what they were". I can't speak for the complainants, but I believe I was denied natural justice, being unable to state my case.

What was more interesting was the way the conversation developed. I soon ascertained that the people who had come to support Brian Coleman were not fans of his parking polices. They also acknowledged that Andrew Dismore would make a decent GLA rep (even though one lady was none too keen on Socialists). Even odder was the conversation with Brian Colemans election agent from Camden. He announced that he'd got Brian Coleman elected in 2000 when everyone thought that was impossible. I suggested that he go to North Finchley and have a chat with local traders. He looked at me as if I'd asked him to clean the drains. I explained that these people were natural Conservatives who Brian Coleman had lost with his parking policies. He explained that he didn't care because he was from Camden. I asked if he'd care if Coleman lost, because Barnet constituted a far bigger percentage of his vote than Camden. he confessed he would. He then told me that he didn't really care about parking issues, because he was a cyclist. Given the views of Brian Coleman on cycle lanes in Barnet, I started to wonder exactly what was going on.

We returned to the subject of Colemans email. One of his supporters claimed that the complainants had only emailed Coleman because they were trying to stitch him up. I responded by asking whether this meant he was a bit silly to respond in the way he did and he'd be better binning the email and denying them publicity. I got a rather glum "I suppose so" as a response. I suggested that if Coleman simply responded "Thank you for your email. I fundamentally disagree with your point of view, regards Brian Coleman" then surely that would have been a reasonable response, which would not have breached the standards code.

I then suggested that Brian Coleman had not really done their cause any good by getting them to come along. I suggested that if he was found guilty of breaching the code, then it would not portray their cause in a good light. I suspect that they hadn't given thought to this aspect of the case. The Barnet Council Standards Sub Committee are a quite reasonable bunch of people. Any verdict or sanction they may take is measured (too measured on many occasion). To try and portray them (as Stephen Hocking had done) as in some way interfering with Brian Colemans human rights, is quite frankly absurd. To try and defend rudeness on the part of a councillor is also clearly backing a losing horse.

It appeared to me that the penny dropped with the supporters. The case was about whether Coleman had broken a code of conduct. Does anyone, anywhere want politicians who think rules don't apply to them? Does anyone want politicians who incur unnecessary costs to the taxpayer? Even if we agree with their views, we want them to display the highest standards of behaviour in public office. Brian Coleman hadn't and he'd got people to turn up to support him, without properly explaining what they were supporting.

The supporters departed long before the guilty verdict was announced. I am sure they still see Brian Coleman as a valued supporter of the Zionist Federation and I'm sure they still appreciate the fact that he doesn't have any truck with people who criticise the policies of the Government of Israel. What I'm not so sure about is whether, when they reflect on what he did, they will think he behaved sensibly. By his actions, he's presented an avoidable keynote victory to people they fundamentally disagree with. Not only that, but he's dragged them along so they are associated with this defeat. If I were in their shoes I'd be less than chuffed with this. Perhaps the worst aspect is that it was clear to anyone who'd read the report that Coleman was going to lose.

That's the trouble with Brian Coleman. He's a loose canon. The trouble with loose canons is that they are as likely to blow up the people who are on their side as they are to damage their enemies. I left feeling rather sorry for the pro Coleman lobby. Not because I agree (or disagree) with their agenda, I don't really even understand it. I feel sorry for them, because I think they were dragged down under false pretences. I think they came expecting to have to stand up for Israel. In the event, they found themselves standing up for someone who doesn't understand how a public servant should behave when emailing someone he is paid to represent.

Note : This email has been edited. Mr Hoffman contacted me and felt I hadn't accurately represented his comments regarding his support for Israel. He assures me that he is perfectly happy to accept fair criticism of Israel and it's government. He felt my summary of his comments made him appear extreme, which was not my intention. In the context of our conversation, I am happy to correct the article. Mr Hoffman also informed me he left the meeting to go to work and for no other reason.


Dan said...

I generally agree, and I hope I'm not injecting an unwanted lighthearted note here, but when I read that Brian Coleman was a 'loose canon' twice, I couldn't help giggling, imagining a befrocked Brian skipping along with his (several) boyfriends, being a loose canon. I know, I know, I know you meant loose cannon, and I appreciate so much all the time and effort you put in to this blog, so please forgive me Rog, I just couldn't help laughing. And, as I dislike the prejudiced, opinionated, freeloading cretin that is Brian, it was a very welcome belly laugh!

Jaybird said...

Great post Roger. It did appear that Brian's supporters left after speaking to you because it became clear that Israel was not at issue.

It was also interesting that no fellow Tory councillors were there to support Coleman.