Call me old fashioned, but when it comes to public money, I’d be making a fuss over £7 if I thought it wasn’t being properly spent.
To the cynics in Ledbury Town Council who make light of such things, I’d remind them that an elected councillor’s prime responsibility is accountability: ‘holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.’ (See Lord Nolan’s 7 Principles of Public Life).
Once you start being relaxed about payment authorisations, about contractual obligations with third party suppliers, not keeping on top of financial regulations and budgets, once you start providing false information to auditors and in council meetings, or you refuse to account for your actions and prevaricate when legitimate questions about your decisions and behaviour are asked, the door is open to all kinds of wrong-doing. No ifs or buts: the rules are the rules.
Even if you are the Mayor or the Town Clerk, perhaps especially because you hold these offices, you must be open and transparent to a fault, troublesome though it may be.
In Ledbury Town Council there is a disturbing tendency to regard questions about the way things are done, or money is spent, as a personal affront. Even more worrying is the overriding sense of collective rectitude that pervades all its goings-on: we know what we’re doing, it’s all been decided, we’ve been doing it this way for years - so butt out. This dangerous behaviour is blatantly obvious in so many of Ledbury Town Council’s dealings, both trivial and profound. See my piece: Why Agreeing Is Not Always The Best Policy: The Dangers of Groupthink.
So what’s all the fuss about? In short, our Neighbourhood Plan consultants – the Foxley Tagg Partnership - stung us with a £7 thousand invoice for a piece of work that everyone thought was being done as part of their existing £24k contract.
Foxley Tagg informed the Town Clerk in October that the consultation work they’d done in the summer fell outside of their existing contract and would be charged extra, seven grand extra, 25% of their contract.
Normal professional practice would be to bring such a matter to a relevant Council committees for consideration by elected councillors. However during two months and six long Council meetings, this didn’t happen. The Clerk and the Mayor kept it quiet. Why?
When the invoice duly arrived on 23 December it was paid as an 'emergency payment' under 'delegated powers', on – wait for it – the 23 December. Why did the Clerk or Mayor think that such a payment request should not be sanctioned by Council? Why was it paid in such haste two days before Christmas? These are worrying questions.
The first anyone heard of it was in early January at Planning Committee when several councillors (including me) expressed shock and concern. True to form, the Clerk and the Mayor, backing each other up, batted off questions with the mantra that they were allowed to do it that way under ‘delegated powers’. As it happens they were not, for a variety of reasons, but even if they were, they could at least engage in the pretence of a dialogue.
Not a bit of it. Despite repeated questioning over four months now, the Mayor and Clerk have consistently failed to provide adequate or accurate information to account for themselves. Even more scandalous is that the auditor, finally brought in to investigate, was given false information to provide cover. Told by the Clerk and backed up by the Mayor, the auditor was assured that committee authorisation had been obtained back in November. As a matter of fact, no discussion ever took place in that committee on the £7 grand, a fact that the Clerk has now belatedly conceded.
The falsehood was repeated in a Full Council meeting by the Mayor, and was corroborated by a number of councillors present, including Martin Eager. That’s quite a serious infraction for a public official.
All in all, what we have seen is a series of shortcomings which have progressed from unfortunate, through incompetent into the quicksand of deception and misrepresentation.
It is unfortunate that we find ourselves working with consultants who have been less than straightforward in their dealings with LTC by not being upfront about their charges.
It now looks like the Mayor and Clerk’s project management of those NP consultants is at best sloppy and uncritical.
The Town Council bureaucracy has shown itself to be impervious to the demands for openness and transparency.
Most seriously, we have witnessed false information being given to Council, press and the auditor allied with persistent stonewalling by senior officers and elected members of LTC.
Where next? Who knows? One thing is for sure, the matter will not lie – as town councillors might - until the mistakes of this sorry affair have been learned.
For a full explanation of the Foxley Tagg Seven Thousand click on file: