‘The worst thing that has happened to me’

A FORMER Morpeth business official has spoken of her distress after she was dismissed from her position.

For nine years Val Pope has served as Secretary and Treasurer of Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade, but her work came to an abrupt end in November when her contract was terminated.

She was unable to speak about the situation previously as she was considering taking legal action, but now she has dropped her claim.

“The hardest decision that I have had to make was not to take my case to an employment tribunal because of the damage that it could have done to the Chamber, which is bigger than one individual,” she said.

“I chose not to because I don’t particularly want the publicity that was likely to come out as a result and I didn’t want the Chamber to have any more expense because it has already committed money to projects which will be good if they come to fruition.

“I don’t want to be seen as being negative towards the organisation because it is an organisation that I respect. It has been in existence for a very long time and it has done some fantastic work and has had some fantastic leadership in the past.”

Matters came to a head following a complaint by Sanderson Arcade Manager Debbie Anderson about comments made by Mrs Pope immediately after the Chamber’s meeting on October 18.

The former Secretary admits making a remark that was considered inappropriate, but says it was not directed at Mrs Anderson and was never meant to insult her.

The Chamber’s Committee held an emergency meeting on October 21 to discuss the complaint and agreed to ask Mrs Pope to send letters of apology to Mrs Anderson and Chairman John Beynon and refrain from behaviour detrimental to members or other parties. She was also warned that any further complaints would result in her contract being terminated.

After taking legal advice Mrs Pope refused to sign, but said she would be happy to apologise to Mrs Anderson and sent her a hand-written letter on November 1.

On November 18 Mr Beynon invited Mrs Pope to speak to ‘a small group of senior Chamber members’, who would decide the next course of action, but she was told to stay away from the organisation’s November meeting.

Mrs Pope declined the invitation and offered to resign in return for a financial settlement of around £10,000.

But there was a legal dispute over her employment status and on November 25 the Chamber informed her that her contract would be terminated at midnight on November 27.

Mrs Pope’s husband Dave resigned from the organisation last month after 13 years’ membership.

Now Mrs Pope says she feels aggrieved that while her husband was a member of the Committee and attended meetings, she has never officially been told the details of the complaint against her or had the chance to present her views to the Committee or full membership.

“I would like the membership to be aware, in the interests of openness and transparency, of an unfortunate set of circumstances involving Dave and I since neither of us have had an opportunity to communicate with the membership as a whole,” she said.

“I do accept that I made a comment which was misconstrued as inappropriate. It was made in a conversation outside a meeting with a person I considered a good friend.

“I was happy to send an apology to her, I had no problem with that whatsoever. I would have done anything within reason to resolve the situation between her and I.”

She added: “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. It is up there with the flood.

“The flood was traumatic, but it was a natural disaster and everybody around us was so supportive. It showed Morpeth as a town full of people who actually do care about one another.

“It was horrible, but it was tolerable.

“This situation is totally different. I feel as though I had no voice and I still don’t know for sure what it was all about.

“I haven’t been able to reach a place where I can start to feel that I haven’t been disgraced. It has made me feel bad about myself and it shouldn’t because I’m proud of what I did for the Chamber.”

Mrs Pope says she and her husband are both proud of their contribution to Morpeth, including helping to organise Trafalgar anniversary celebrations, summer music events, the annual Mistletoe Fair, continental markets and Fair Day, and for the past six years they have paid for and supplied a town Christmas tree.

“I don’t regret one minute of the time that we have spent working for Morpeth through the Chamber of Trade,” said Mrs Pope.

“Whatever has happened to me and whatever differences there have been over the past few months that does not alter my feelings about the work that I did. I put my heart and soul into it.

“With members like Les Sage, Les English and Tony Osborne, it has been a real privilege to have worked with them.

“We don’t wish any harm to the organisation at all, we just wish things could have been handled differently.”

She added: “I do wish the Chamber well and I hope it goes from strength to strength.”

Chamber Chairman John Beynon said the group is unable to respond fully to Mrs Pope’s comments until legal issues are settled.

He said: “Following the general meeting on October 18, 2010, a formal complaint was made by a member of the Chamber stating that they had been subject to a foul-mouthed, verbal, personal attack by Mrs Pope, the Secretary/Treasurer of the Chamber.

“Having received written correspondence with subsequent allegations from Mrs Pope’s solicitor the Chamber was forced to take legal advice to defend these allegations and uphold its reputation.

“It would be totally wrong of me to discuss the contents of Mrs Pope’s claims with the Press or any third party both in advance of members being given all of the facts and while legal action is pending.”