Closer scrutiny inevitable for town councils

I commented recently on the changes in the world of grassroots local government and how important it was for town councillors to be scrupulously careful.

Thanks to the internet people can now sit at home and follow the work of town councils, as agendas and minutes are online. Town councils publish their codes of conduct online, so an armchair critic can comb the agendas, check the codes and see if breaches have occurred. True accountability or a busybody’s charter, take your pick.

In 30-odd years of reporting local government, I’d never really seen a code of conduct until recently. If a councillor behaved questionably, I’d expect someone to either correct it at the time or quietly have a word. I (naively perhaps) assumed that people knew the rules and followed them.

It’s not just minutes that can be checked: people can check councillors’ directorships, employers, social life, property ownership and former jobs.

All this transparency comes at a time when town councillors — who are unpaid volunteers, remember — are being given more responsibility.

Local town councils no longer have clerks, they have chief operating officers. In our Sandbach edition we report this week on the unfortunate mess that its town council has got itself into. In a nutshell, it had a policy that candidates who wanted to be co-opted onto it would give a presentation, and councillors would then vote who to co-opt. Tacitly, this implied that attendance was requisite.

Chronicle letter-writer Glynn Robinson failed to be co-opted after being unable to attend a co-option meeting.

Then an absent candidate was co-opted and Mr Robinson was not happy.
With the minutes all on record, it’s easy for people to check and back their arguments up with proof.

The decision had been taken to consider absent candidates’ applications during October’s co-option; councillors then voted to reverse this decision during the full council meeting on Thursday.

That mistake was caused we’d guess by, at worst, over-enthusiasm to co-opt people onto the council: co-option is much cheaper than holding an election.

The council has been honest about the error, sending us information and checking the facts with us.

It’s not always so simple.

At Congleton Town Council, the row about the statement that defamed Coun Dawn Allen rumbles on.

To recap: Coun Peter Broom made a number of serious allegations against Coun Allen: that she had “participated and supplied drugs with and to” vulnerable people and “claimed money from the benefits department … to do work on her personal property”.

Last week we reported that Coun Broom had gone to the police but they had declined to proceed.

Clerk Brian Hogan said the council was not taking any steps to examine the incident saying: “Until someone tells us officially that it’s come back to us, there’s not a lot we or anyone else can do.”

That’s despite the fact that the claims came to light at a council meeting, over which codes of conduct apply, we would have supposed.

You’d have thought someone would be investigating whether there was any truth in the allegations, and whether either person — Couns Allen or Broom or both — needed to be investigated for making what could be false accusations.

For example, Coun Broom claimed that “on a number of occasions” Coun Allen had “misrepresented her role as a councillor”. This doesn’t need the police to investigate, this is a council matter. Has Coun Allen breached any codes of conduct?

Coun Allen herself made accusations that should also need investigating.
She accused Coun Broom of making a “vicious and unsubstantiated attack on a fellow councillor”. She also accused council leader Bob Edwards and Mr Hogan of “only helping and supporting Conservative councillors” — the code for councillors saying they should “listen to the interests of all parties appropriately,” while the code for officers, which covers Mr Hogan, says: “(officers) must serve all councillors and not just those of any controlling group”.

Coun Allen also made the rather bizarre claim that Mr Hogan “said nothing to protect me because I recently made a formal complaint about his foul and abusive language”.

That rather staggering claim would probably be more covered by employment law than codes of conduct though the officers’ code does say that “an employee must at all time act in accordance with the trust that the public is entitled to place in him/ her”.

Of course, if any of the accusations made by either councillor are untrue — and we have seen no evidence for any of them — the code of conduct should surely apply to councillors making the accusations.

As we started off by saying, the original minutes (now deleted but downloaded by a number of people) and the code of conduct for councillors are both easy to access.

Gone are the days when a spat of this kind could be swept under the carpet. Too many people have too much access to information.

It’s possible that something is being done behind the scenes and we are just not being told, in which case we would remind the council of a line in the officers’ code of conduct: “It is generally accepted that open government is best”.

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