Friday 15th December 2017,
North Yorks Enquirer

WTC: A Council Divided

August 31, 2014 Whitby Town

WTC: A Council Divided

  • an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, reporting on a deep schism that is threatening to tear Whitby Town (Parish) Council apart.

~~~~~

IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST

The Schism

Throughout much of the past decade, there has been a marked and deepening schism dividing the membership of Whitby Town (Parish) Council. Much of it has been contended behind closed doors. Even my many detractors must concede that a divided Council is not, in itself, democratically ‘unhealthy’. In fact, one might argue with some conviction that a finely balanced Council may be vibrant and pro-active, and well placed to engage the interest of the electorate. Moreover, Council’s comprising a clear majority of members of the same political affiliation are often turgid, staid and unequal to the challenges of changing times.

Parish and Town Councils frequently profess to be constituted on apolitical lines, professing to conduct the business of the community on an issue-by-issue basis in such a way that political affiliation does not predetermine voting, which proceeds on the basis of merit and the good conscience of members.

Such a Council is Whitby Town (Parish) Council (WTC). In theory.

The practice is somewhat different.

There has been a deep division amongst the membership of WTC going back many years. This division is not along party political lines; it appears to be driven by personal malice. The use of the forum of the Council as a launch-pad for serial attempts at character assassination is not a practice well-suited to providing the best of all possible public service to the electors of Whitby. It has resulted in an elected body that is terminally dysfunctional. It would be hard to name a single action on the part of the Council during the present century that has achieved any discernible benefit for the residents of Whitby.

The causes of this dysfunctionality are too many (and too petty) to enumerate here. However, there has been a dramatic development that some Councillors are determined to resolve behind closed doors.

Background

During the back end of 2013, I was approached, on divers occasions, by four members of Whitby Town (Parish) Council who expressed grave concern about the way in which the records of the Council – including personal data pertaining to staff, including the Town Clerk – are held and safeguarded. Or not, as the case may be.

The Council’s records – Agendas, Minutes, correspondence, finances, banking, etc – are of course created in the digital domain. This digital data is secure so long as the Council’s computer-system is secure. Naturally, some of the more responsible Councillors, foreseeing the risk of burglary or fire, have been urging the Council to adopt secure off-site data storage.

In this context, I was shocked to hear that the WTC data was backed-up onto a portable memory device (variously described as a Flash-Drive, a memory-stick, etc) which the Clerk was in the habit of taking home with her so that any possible fire or burglary at the Council offices would not deprive the Council of its records. This raises the question of how safe the Council’s data is whilst in the Clerk’s personal possession – and how safe is the Clerk? Obviously, Clerks are not immune to the incidence of casual loss by oversight, house-fires or burglaries – or, for that matter, muggings, between office and car, or, indeed, theft from the car itself. I suggested that the Council should be made aware of the various on-line data storage facilities, e.g. DropBox. And there the matter rested; I was at that time deeply engaged in the investigation of the Peter Jaconelli Scarborough paedophile ring and the contemporaneous cover-up by Scarborough Borough Council and the North Yorkshire Police, so the debate over the Whitby Town (Parish) Council’s data storage was, regrettably, eclipsed by unfolding events.

The Roots of the Present Ruckus

At a meeting of WTC on 4th August 2014, I found myself in casual conversation with Town Clerk Mrs Pam DOBSON. It was a cordial enough exchange in which the Clerk mentioned that she took exception to something I had published five weeks previously, on 27th June 2014, in an article entitled “Equal Under The Law? Parish The Thought!”. That article reports on the appalling record of Exelby, Leeming & Newton (ELN) Parish Council Clerk, Mrs Margaret STEAD, whose response to an FOIA request revealed that her idea of data storage also extended no further than a memory-stick, I mentioned the WTC situation, as reported to me by those four WTC Councillors in mid-autumn last year:

  • Data Security: a sensitive area highlighted by the news that Whitby Town (Parish) Council Clerk Mrs Pam DOBSON has for years habitually carried the entire digital back-up of her Council’s records (including sensitive personal data of Members and staff) around in her hand-bag on a memory stick, frequently left unattended in her car).

The Clerk enquired as to the source of my information, to which I responded that I had received reports from elected members. I did not state which members, nor did I identify the time or the place of the information being shared with me.

For the avoidance of any doubt, there is nothing even remotely improper about Councillors relaying to members of the press or public details of events or discussions that have taken place in open Council Meetings; quite the reverse – it is most commendable.

In fact, Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government the Rt. Hon. Eric PICKLES has recently admonished the National Association of Local Councillors (NALC) for publishing guidance to Councillors encouraging them to desist from making statements to press and public.

Eric PICKLES has instructed Councillors to share information freely with press and public.

On Tuesday 19th August 2014, I learned (through social media) that the Town Clerk was pursuing an Employment Grievance against the Council and a raft of Standards Complaints against certain Councillors – members of the Finance, Policy & General Purposes Committee, presently Chaired by Councillor Simon PARKES.

I immediately called the Clerk to alert her to the rumour. The Clerk asserted that the rumour was true; the matter appeared on the Agenda for that evening’s meeting of the WTC Finance, Policy & General Purposes Committee (FP&GP), and I was, of course welcome to attend. Naturally, I did.

Item 7 on the FP&GP Agenda for the Meeting of Tuesday 19th August reads as follows:

  • 7. FORMAL GRIEVANCE AND COMPLAINT TO STANDARDS COMMITTEE – to receive a verbal report from the Town Clerk

Let me first point out that, based on this information alone, it is clear that the content of the Clerk’s verbal report could not legitimately have been known to any of the Committee Members prior to the Clerk actually delivering her verbal report. To be blunt, any Councillor with prior information of the Clerk’s Grievance and Standards Complaints could only have obtained that information sub rosa from the Clerk herself. This turns out to have a special significance.

The Town Clerk’s Verbal Report

The Clerk reported to Committee that, in consequence of the text cited above (being an excerpt from my article of 27th June 2014):

  • Data Security: a sensitive area highlighted by the news that Whitby Town (Parish) Council Clerk Mrs Pam DOBSON has for years habitually carried the entire digital back-up of her Council’s records (including sensitive personal data of Members and staff) around in her hand-bag on a memory stick, frequently left unattended in her car).

She had apparently lodged a Formal Grievance addressing the conduct of the Councillors who formed the membership of the FP&GP Committee Meeting of 17th June 2014. The Clerk is no stranger to Formal Grievances, having been through the routine at her previous position at Marlborough Town Council.

Interestingly, on the WTC web-site, the download link for the Minutes of that Meeting bring up not the Minutes, as one would expect, but the Agenda (curiously, the Agenda download link also brings up the Agenda. No Minutes to be seen). Consequently, as a member of the public it is presently impossible to ascertain which Councillors were present at that meeting.

The Clerk reported that the matter had been referred to the North Yorkshire Police and that, since an investigation was under way, all parties should expect a visit. (Several Councillors have today reported to me that, like me, they have heard nothing from the Police).

Be that as it may, the Clerk went on to state that, with the exception of Deputy Mayor Councillor Sean RIXHAM-SMITH, all the Members present as she spoke had also been present at the 17th June 2014 FP&GP Meeting.

She also stated that she had lodged Standards Complaints at Scarborough Borough Council against the same group of Councillors, who are:

  • Councillor Niall CARSON
  • Councillor John FREEMAN
  • Councillor Terry JENNISON
  • Councillor Simon PARKES (Chair)
  • Councillor Derek ROBINSON
  • Councillor Mrs Amanda SMITH (Vice Chair)
  • Councillor Steve SMITH
  • Councillor Phil TRUMPER

It was the Clerk’s contention that one or more of the aforementioned had breached the confidentiality of the Committee and in doing so had placed her in personal danger, because my article was in the public domain and therefore accessible to criminal elements who may plot to burglarise her house or car, or even mug her, in pursuit of the WTC back-up data. Readers may view that as far-fetched; I could not possibly comment.

During the latter part of the Clerk’s presentation of her report, the Deputy Mayor could be seen packing away his paperwork. I immediately sensed that a set-piece was about to be deployed. No sooner did the Clerk finish her report than the Deputy Mayor leaped to his feet and delivered the following address:

“Yes, well, I’ve got something to say. First of all, it annoys me that there is somebody sat around this table who has had put [sic] this information out into the public forum. And by doing that, you are not only giving opportunities for private Council business to be accessed, you are also putting the safety of the Town Clerk at risk. And I am just a little bit disgusted by it, really. And I hope you’re gonna sleep well tonight because, whoever it was . . . but on that particular note, Chair, I will be stepping down from this Committee for those reasons, and those reasons alone, because, though it grieves me to go, I will not be associated with the Committee who has . . . done that.”

RESIGNATION_SPEECH

Let us consider the implications of this.

The Deputy Mayor of Whitby has verbally resigned from the FP&GP Committee, stating that he is disgusted by the actions of one or more unnamed FP&GP member Councillors, for allegedly improperly releasing Council information previously discussed in an open Meeting to a member of the public – me – thereby endangering the Clerk. So much for “innocent until proven guilty”. And guilty of what? Disclosing open Meeting public domain information to the wider public? Where is the offence?

Further – and this is far more significant – how will the Deputy Mayor justify sitting with the same unnamed Councillors who he adjudges untrustworthy when he attends Full Council Meetings (and the next is on Tuesday 2nd September 2014) and the same Councillor(s) are summonsed to attend?

And further still, how will the Deputy Mayor undertake his civic duties as Deputy Mayor, when he will be publicly representing the Council, including the same unnamed Councillor(s) whose conduct, he asserts, has so disgusted him? This is preposterous.

Sean RIXHAM-SMITH is a thoroughly decent man. I hope that readers will join me in hoping that he has not been manipulated – a pawn in a grand scheme of someone else’s design.

The Aftermath

On Wednesday 20th August, the day following the Meeting, the Town Clerk engaged me in an exchange of half a dozen emails:

  1. First, asking if I was willing to remove my article and/or publish a retraction. I requested clarification as to the precise comment to which the Clerk too exception.
  2. Then, the Clerk specified the paragraph cited above, which she characterised as “factually incorrect”. I pointed out that the information came to me about a year ago, from impeccable sources acting in good faith and in the public interest. I advised the Clerk to investigate the possibility of using DropBox.
  3. Finally, the Clerk responded, asserting that my information would “be very useful in the pursuance of my grievance and standards complaint”. I responded with a few questions of my own – notably, under whose instructions did the Clerk take Council data off-site? Was the Council’s data insured when it is off-site? Is the Clerk the Council’s Registered Data Controller (with the Information Commissioner’s Office)?

Unfortunately, the Clerk appears to have gone to ground. No acknowledgement. And no response to any of the above questions for over a week now.

On Friday 22nd August 2014, despairing of any further information from the Clerk, I sent an email to the Mayor Councillor Heather COUGHLAN, marked *** PRIVATE & STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL ***. I am not about to reproduce that email here.

I received neither acknowledgement nor response, so I followed that email with a gentle reminder on Thursday 28th August 2014. Still no response.

I will be asking Mayor Heather COUGHLAN, Chair of Whitby Town (Parish) Council, whether or not she feels that her determination to ignore my very valid concerns complies with the requirements of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct and the Seven Nolan Principles of Public life:

Revised_Nolan_Principles

In my view, the present Chair/Mayor stands in breach of all seven.

Hunkering down, with head deeply buried in the sand, is not the way to evince Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and (especially) Leadership. Ignoring courteous and coherent concerns of any member of the electorate is a shameful dereliction of duty of the sort that we witness all too frequently when mediocrities are elevated to positions of responsibility far above their innate capacity.

Town Councils are differentiated from other Parish Councils in virtue of the fact that the elected Chair may style him/herself  ‘Mayor’ and (of course) wear the regalia. But there is a great deal more to being a good Chair than to being a good Mayor, sole prerequisite for which is to present the community with an appropriately august figurehead whose presence may be relied upon to add dignity and gravitas to the major events of the social calendar.

HEATHER_COUGHLAN

The Council is being torn apart by personal animus and petty jealousies. It desperately needs strong and competent leadership. But, as several Councillors have been saying, Councillor Heather COUGHLAN was elected to the position not because of her experience, acumen or indeed any other personal traits or qualities at all – but because “it was her turn”.

That, apparently, is the nadir to which democratic representation in Whitby is now reduced – a driverless omnibus, crashing in slow motion. In terms of rate-payers’ value-for-money, Whitby Town (Parish) Council has become nothing more than a £¼-million-a-year pissing contest.

And I am now concerned that the Councillors’ Pack delivered with the Agenda for the Council Meeting on Tuesday 2nd September 2014 has been revised as of Thursday 28th August 2014, leaving only Friday 29th August and Monday 1st September 2014 – not the necessary three clear working-days before the Meeting on Tuesday 2nd September 2014. The amendment contains the following bold type insertion:

  • Councillor Rixham-Smith expressed his unwillingness to serve on a Committee where he felt that some of his fellow Councillors could not be trusted and tendered his resignation from the Committee and left the meeting.

I refer readers to the transcript taken from the audio/video recording of the Deputy Mayor’s statement (cited above). It is noteworthy that at no point in his statement did the Deputy Mayor aver that he felt that “some of his fellow Councillors could not be trusted”. The Clerk would appear to have placed on the official record an interpretation of the Deputy Mayor’s remarks that, though it may suit her own purposes, is not actually true. I am unclear as to how Councillors will react to being called upon to ratify as a true record Minutes that include a statement that demonstrably departs from the truth. Earlier in the year , the Council formally Resolved to film/record and archive its Meetings. Why does the Clerk refer to the Council’s official record when preparing her Agendas? Never let the facts get in the way of a good Grievance, perhaps – to paraphrase that old chestnut about journalism.

The Local Government Act 1972 s.84 states that resignations must be tendered in writing.

Has Deputy Mayor Councillor Sean RIXHAM-SMITH’s verbal resignation from the Finance, Policy & General Purposes Committee since been confirmed in writing? If not, is it a legally binding resignation at all? The Local Government Act 1972 states that it is not.

And even if it were, why was Councillor Noreen WILSON’s verbal resignation in Full Council in February this year not equally definitive?

Come to that, why has neither the Clerk nor any of the Councillors who were present when she told citizen-journalist Nick HENDERSON You can  shove your camera up your arse! made a Formal Complaint to the Standards Committee regarding her disgraceful breach of the Councillors Code of Conduct?

NOREEN_WILSON

There would appear to be a disparity in the way in which the law is interpreted at Whitby Town (Parish) Council. Double standards?

Interestingly, other Councillors have resigned from Whitby Town (Parish) Council in recent times. If their resignations were not tendered in writing then they, too, are not legally binding – and the Councillor(s) concerned are, in fact, still elected members of the Council.

Where does that leave Councillors who were subsequently co-opted onto the Council to fill the casual vacancies created in those wards by those resignations?

Further, Councillor Noreen WILSON is not a member of the FP&GP Committee. She is a substitute member. The Council’s Standing Orders require that substitutes may sit with the Committee only when substituting for absent members. No members were absent. For the purposes of the FP&GP Meeting of Tuesday 19th August 2014, Councillor Noreen WILSON attended as a member of the public – not permitted (unless Standing Orders were suspended) to take part in debate, or (in any circumstances) to vote . Yet she was permitted to sit at the Committee table and take part in the debate and to vote while Standing Orders prevailed. Why? That is a question for the Chair, Councillor Simon PARKES – Councillor Noreen WILSON’s only fellow Labour Councillor.

I accept that it is not unreasonable to permit a degree of latitude in the interpretation of the rules in, say, a family game of Trivial Pursuits. But local governance is not a trivial pursuit. It is a serious business. The rules are laid down in law. Is it asking too much to expect our local Councillors to comply with the law?

Whitby Town (Parish) Council is a Council divided. It is riddled with internecine back-stabbing. The brightest, most principled and productive members are being excluded from the proper work of the Council by the self-seekers and the easily manipulated.

Deplorable, I know – but it was ever thus. When will it change?

I think we should be told.

DEPUTY_MAYOR

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