In future, 2016 will not be remembered as just another of Ledbury Town Council's wasted years, but its time of ruin.
Mired by resignations (here and here) and recriminations, the Council has endured months of catatonic inaction interrupted only by a few colourful outbreaks of zombie-style rage. (see Buntingate and Tolerance Motion)
All in all, another year of squandered opportunities and thwarted hopes has slipped by in Ledbury, another £300 thousand pounds expended on itself to achieve very little except win notoriety as one of the UK's most dysfunctional town councils.
As the New Year beckons, what are the chances of renewal and repair?
An investigation into the machinations of Ledbury Town Council is approaching its grimly inevitable conclusion. Of one thing we can be certain: there will be some Ledbury Town Councillors who will face political ruin, personal humiliation, perhaps even criminal investigation.
For those vanquished, it will be not such a merry Christmas. Over the flatulent dregs of the season, all the players in this tragicomedy might at least have time to reflect on their year just gone, the mistakes and misdemeanors, all the recklessness and arrogance, the deceits and distortions.
As the Ghost of Christmas Past icily observed: “No space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunity misused”.
But before feeling sorrow for their plight, it's as well to reprise what led to this colossal fiasco.
The inquiry by Herefordshire Council was prompted by a slew of complaints and counter claims by warring town councillors and residents, so many in fact that an independent team of investigators was enlisted, among them a retired police officer who specialised in anti-corruption and a local government solicitor.
At the heart of it all, lay grievances levelled by town council staff members against two councillors - Liz Harvey and Andrew Harrison - for bullying, harassment and intimidation. The Council took these complaints seriously; so much so that it decided to rip up the rule-book and organise its own novel investigation process that would guarantee the outcome it sought.
Protesting their innocence, Harvey and Harrison underwent a trial by fire at successive closed council meetings and panels where they were roasted and harried by their haters: Crowe, Barnes, Eager, Roberts (Noel), Fieldhouse, Baker, Francis and Yeoman. Dispensing with all semblance of due process and natural justice, they faced a jury composed of those same hostile councillors with whom they had been battling over openness since the 2015 election.
They were of course found guilty as charged. A letter was sent to every local club, group or society in the district denouncing them as heinous bullies. A lawyer might say that this was quite a brave move. The foregone result of the Council's 'internal investigation' was announced at Ledbury's vicious Annual Council Meeting in May 2016 when they were banned from all committees and outside bodies.
This has been a war about transparency, accountability, entitlement to power, resistance to change, vested interests, jealousy, political rivalries, personal scores and the fight for civilised human values. Harvey and Harrison were among the progressives, seeking to challenge the Council's habitual secrecy, and the grip of its inner circle of cynical decisionmakers.
In that carefree atmosphere of pre-referendum Britain when everyone was tired of experts, at the dawn of this post-truth era, the Town Council gladly ignored the repeated advice of both Herefordshire Council's legal officer and a leading local government barrister that what they were doing was legally indefensible. Instead they left it in the hands of the Chief Executive of Herefordshire Association of Local Councils to cobble together a process. (Twelve months on, this still hasn't been written down nor adopted officially by LTC in its standing orders).
It just so happens that this shadowy presence, Mrs Lynda Wilcox, is the wife of Herefordshire Council's Chairman, Cllr Brian Wilcox, freemason, and a leading Conservative and determined political opponent of Cllr Liz Harvey from It's Our County.
Armed with her talents, but which do not yet appear to extend to legal expertise, Mrs Wilcox likes to make herself indispensible to parish and town clerks around the county, and in return receives subscriptions to her organisation. She organises training events creatively marketed as 'Wise Owl', 'In the Hot Seat' and 'Information Corner'.
Much is made of HALC's 'insurance-backed' advice on its website. This could prove useful in the future if it emerges that incorrect advice has been given to any of its clients. As Mrs Wilcox says in her blurb with no hint of irony, 'Without HALC Clerk cover, your [parish council] could easily act unlawfully.'
Just as she could hardly be accused of originality in her marketing, so she would struggle to give the outward appearance of being wholly impartial in her dealings with Ledbury Town Council. Annual subs to HALC pay her wages, while her husband's political group is daily locked in mortal combat with Liz Harvey's. (The Tories have never forgiven Harvey for snatching one of their Ledbury Ward seats in 2010, and then another in 2015. Politics, a dirty game).
Liz Harvey argued persuasively that Mrs 'Wise-Owl' Wilcox could not be neutral or objective since it was her contentious advice to the Town Council upon which the dispute mainly centred. Initially, the responsible Council committee accepted this conflict of interest and voted to dispense with her services. But then she was reinstated. Why?
Even the (Tory) MP Bill Wiggin was enlisted to the Council's cause with public accusations of bullying and harassment of 'his friend' the Clerk. Uncharitable souls might suspect a political conspiracy.
Latin and legal scholars will be familiar with the concept of 'nemo judex in causa sua' (nobody should be a judge in their own cause) but such fine sentiments are sadly written in a long dead tongue as far as Ledbury Town Councillors are concerned. It would be almost as unintelligible to them as the lofty words of that most hated foreign body, the European Court of Human Rights: 'everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law'. (Article 6).
So where next? The signs are not encouraging.
Either Harvey and Harrison will be found guilty of harassment towards town council staff in which case their involvement with town politics will probably be at an end. Or, if innocent, the Town Council will descend into political meltdown.
Sources close to the Mayor suggest that Ledbury Town Council is minded to ignore any findings of Herefordshire Council's investigation. Councillors are already saying in the local press that they have no intention of resigning, even before the report is published. More ominously, the Council's dirty tricks machine appears once again to be cranking into life, a last gasp effort to deflect attention from its own troubles.
This affair has lasted two years, cost thousands of pounds of public money and wasted prodigious amounts of time in argument and dispute. On top of the four thousand already spent, Ledbury Town Council has laid up a war chest of a further £10 thousand for future legal action, this, at a time of savage local government cutbacks. It is clear where the Council's priorities lie. Itself.
There will not be any winners in this game, only losers, the hapless council tax payers of Ledbury and Herefordshire.
At what point will they rise up and call a halt to this madness? Might 2017 finally be the year when democratic values begin to assert themself in our sorely abused community?