An Extraordinary general meeting of Andover Town Council saw vigorous debate between councillors over whether the outcome of a grievance panel should be heard in secret.

The meeting, held on December 15, saw councillors assemble to receive the report on the grievances made by staff at the council, which saw it close for two weeks while a locum was appointed.

Following the approval of new dates for council meetings in the new year, councillors debated the exclusion of the press and public to hear confidential staffing matters; a process which is usually a formality which goes undebated.

Following the debate between councillors, the resolution passed, with councillors entering confidential proceedings to hear the outcome of the panel’s investigation.

It is the latest in a series of dramatic steps that followed the decision to close the town council temporarily after “concerns regarding councillors” were received.

The meeting establishing the grievance panel saw attempts to close the meeting and replace Mayor Richard Rowles as chair, which were both struck down. This led one councillor to say that the public should “not believe in democracy at Andover Town Council.”

The grievance panel subsequently produced a report, which was to be presented to councillors at the extraordinary general meeting.

Due to potential conflicts of interest in the confidential report, locum town clerk Tracy Predeth agreed a “disclosable interest that allows everyone to speak and participate in the meeting.”

Following this, the resolution to exclude the press and public was proposed and seconded by Cllrs Lauren Banville and Barbara Long respectively. Cllr Jo Coole then announced that she wanted to debate the resolution.

She said that discussion of the grievance panel “should be done with the same public fanfare it was given when it was first announced.”

Cllr Jo Coole claimed that the members named in the grievance had been “continually attacked by certain council members and members of the public” and called the temporary closing of the council “unnecessary”.

She then accused the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of “extremely indiscreet actions” on social media, and called for them to resign.

Andover Mayor Richard Rowles rejected the call, and said that there had been “a number of other instances… related to councillors publishing confidential information online.”

The clerk added that the meeting “can’t proceed” unless it was in a confidential session.

She said: “I’d like to remind members that this does put the council in a very bad light under employment law and guidance from ACAS and the council’s solicitors. I strongly urge that members put this session into confidential proceedings and do not repeat anything that is discussed.”

Cllr Rebecca Meyer subsequently asked why councillors had not received the written report ahead of the meeting, which the clerk said was due to the “fear of it being shared all over social media” and “a breakdown in trust between members.”

Cllr Nicholas Asamoah then spoke, asking why the council had “spent £11,000 on something that literally has come up with nothing.”

Cllr Rowles said that the council “won’t know it’s a waste until we hear the report.”

Cllr Ecclestone then spoke, saying that he was “one of the people accused”, and claiming that he had not been spoken to in the process.

He said: “I can tell everyone in the public and on this council that the HR consultant has not spoken to me, so how she did an enquiry without speaking to me means that this is just a Star Chamber, so I will not be supporting going to closed session. I want all of this story out there for the public of Andover, the taxpayers, the people who pay for this shambolic waste of money,to hear what it has been spent on.”

Cllr Rowles responded, saying that the councillors named in the grievances “were given the opportunity to speak to the HR consultant [but] declined.”

Cllr Long then spoke to close the debate, saying that she was “appalled at how much detail has gone out on social media through leaks.”

She said: “We have to hear that in confidentiality to know what is going on. I’m sure there will be a press release so all the public know immediately afterwards what the outcome is. But it must be heard by councillors first. Even if this discussion tonight, people have pre-empted what this report is saying. Nobody knows what this report is saying. I am part of the grievance panel and I don’t know what’s part of the report.”

A vote was then held, with six votes in favour and four against, with Cllr David Treadwell having lost connection to the meeting. The press and public were then removed from the meeting.

A public statement on the grievance process is expected shortly.