WTC Ruckus: An Up-Date
- – an “In My View” up-date by NIGEL WARD, informing readers of the latest developments regarding events covered in his article “WTC: A Council Divided”, published yesterday (Sunday 31st August 2014).
Readers of yesterday’s article “WTC: A Council Divided” will already know that a huge row – a “storm in a hemlock cup”, as one Councillor dubbed it – has broken out between warring factions of Whitby Town (Parish) Council. The Town Clerk has instigated a Formal Grievance against the Council and lodged Standards Complaints against the following Councillors:
- 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
The issues believed to underpin the Clerk’s radical actions appear to relate to certain unnamed Councillors who have allegedly endangered the safety of digital data held by the Council that is thought to include personal data relating to staff, elected members and members of the public. It is also alleged that information reported to me by Councillors who have been concerned about the Council’s data security for approximately twelve months now has placed the Clerk in the position of being personally at risk of burglary, car-theft and mugging as a result of her removing a back-up of the Council’s digital data from the Council office on a portable data-storage device. It is unclear who authorised this action, though it seems to be clear that the Clerk has belatedly come to the opinion that it places her at risk.
I emailed the Town mayor Councillor heather COUGHLAN on 22nd August 2014 in an email clearly marked *** Private & Strictly Confidential *** to which I received no response. A follow-up email, on 28th August 2014 also marked *** Private & Strictly Confidential *** was also ignored until 12:22pm today, 1st September 2014 – the day AFTER the publication of my public interest article. The Town Mayor marked her email to me only “your emails”, so I stand under stricture of confidentiality that might (arguably) dissuade me from reproducing it here:
“Sent from my iPad Nigel, Your emails drop off my system too fast for me to reply. Regarding the contents of your emails, 1. I really need to know who gave you the relevant information regarding contents of handbags and car boots, either the Town Clerk who this was aimed at or others, who now have a problem. Without this information I am not able to proceed.2. This issue has led to all female staff and councillors being nervous about going out into the rear car park alone. Therefore there may have to be cost implications regarding security for us, lighting, and someone being there as security when we arrive and leave our cars. Whoever the perpetrator is who isn’t brave enough to come forward and say it was me,clearly hadn’t thought it through. I am sure you will share this email to them!3. I am aware that Councillor Rixham Smith was annoyed about this situation and the underhanded method of the (so we thought loyal councillor or councillors). I do not think he overstepped his boundaries, having witnessed many times in the past councillors and members of the public abusing each other and visiting officers of the Borough Council. We as councillors regularly disagree and fall out, that is democracy. Kindest regards HeatherI hope this message gets through to your email.“
Rather than commenting on the Town Mayor’s remarks here, I now reproduce my response to her, timed and dated at 2:21pm today:
Councillor Heather COUGHLAN – Town Mayor – Whitby Town (Parish) Council
IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST
Thank you for your long-belated email (receipt of which I acknowledge) in response to mine of 22nd and 28th August 2014.
I offer you the following response:
I can make no sense of your remark:
- “Your emails dropped off my system too fast for me to reply”.
I find this statement beyond the realms of credibility. Please explain how it is that only now, following publication of my article reporting on the FP&GP Meeting of 19th August 2014, that my emails have dropped back onto your system. Thank you.
On such a serious matter – and with a subject line so redolent of importance and gravity – I am at a loss to imagine what prevented you from dealing with these very important issues in a timely manner.
I would add that you appear to disregard the points that I have raised, instead preferring to interrogate me – an action which you have no authority to perform.
Regarding your numbered points, I will respond in accordance with your own point-numbers, for convenience of reference, as follows:
1) You seem to imagine that there is/was something improper in Councillors reporting events that took place in an open Meeting to members of the press and/or public. This is not the case. There is therefore no justification for the Deputy Mayor to make offensive insinuations against fellow elected members.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no justification for the Mayor to do so – I note your remarks:
- “the underhanded method of the (so we thought loyal councillor or councillors)”
- “Whoever the perpetrator is who isn’t brave enough to come forward and say it was me, clearly hadn’t thought it through. I am sure you will share this email to them!”
- “I am aware that Councillor Rixham Smith was annoyed about this situation and the underhanded method of the (so we thought loyal councillor or councillors).”
Frankly, Heather, I believe these remarks indicate a disregard for transparency that is utterly unacceptable, coming, as they do, from the Chair of an elected body. The very word “perpetrator” is pejorative in the extreme. To suggest that those who do have due regard for transparency are “not brave enough to come forward” is perverse and insulting.
To characterise the actions of Councillors reporting concerns discussed in an open Meeting as “underhand”, with the further reproach in regard to their good character “so we thought, loyal”, is deeply offensive. Who is “we”, by the way? I am interested to learn more of the factions within the Council, and I do require an answer to that question.
I am shocked that you appear imprudent enough to put down in writing such unfounded and potentially libellous remarks, not least because it reflects very poorly on your suitability for public office.
The remarks are manifestly disrespectful to the Councillors concerned and in clear breach of the first of the Seven Nolan Principles of Public Life – as well as breaching Article 1 of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct.
On these grounds (which I may supplement in due course, at my own prerogative) I require you to record a Formal Complaint against yourself, as of today’s date. Please provide a timely acknowledgement of my Formal Complaint.
2) I was not present at the FP&GP Meeting of 17th June 2014, so I have no personal experience of what was discussed at that Meeting. The Clerk seems to have a recollection that data security was discussed at that Meeting, so you will need to ask her why it has taken two months for her to raise the matter.
This ‘issue’ has been a matter of concern for approximately one year. Members of the Council will need to consider what was discussed in open Meetings approximately one year ago when these concerns first arose. For your information, these concerns have been widely discussed over an extended time period. It is absurd to suggest that they arise from the content of the FP&GP Meeting of 17th June 2014. It follows, therefore, that the present furore is entirely a result of the Clerk’s mis-identification of the time and place of the information reaching my ears – though I repeat, there is nothing reprehensible about Councillors reporting the events of a public Meeting to members of the press and/or public who, for whatever reason, did not attend.
3) I can well imagine that the Deputy Mayor was “annoyed” in response to the sequence of events as portrayed to him. I find it harder to imagine that he would have been “annoyed” had he been provided with a true account of the actual sequence of events. It was apparent to me that he had prior knowledge of the Clerk’s verbal report not shared with the other Committee members, all of whom can be seen to react with genuine astonishment. How is that? And do bear in mind that, according to the amended Agenda for tomorrow night’s Full Council Meeting, the Deputy Mayor was more than “annoyed” – he resigned. I quote:
- “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.“
As regards your very strange remark, with its terminal exclamation mark:
- “I am sure you will share this email to them!”
perhaps you will explain to me (though I doubt it) in what way you consider it inappropriate for me to share your correspondence with me with whomsever I please? Your email (unlike mine) was not marked *** Private & Strictly Confidential *** – so I see no constraint, legal or moral, upon me sharing your part of our correspondence not only with whomsoever I please, but with the wider public. I would venture to say that you can rely on me to do so. I do not share your “affection for secrecy”. And I have more than once informed the Council that I reserve the right to publish my correspondence into the public domain – a fact that would appear to have escaped your notice.
I have not been present at Council to see . I am shocked to hear that. If it is true, then action is long overdue.
You may not be aware that it has been determined, in a recent judgement, that Freedom of Information requests are applicable not only to information held by the Council in written form, but also to the personal knowledge of Councillors and/or Officers. On that basis, I now lodged the following Freedom of Information request:
Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act 200, please provide the following information:
- The names of those Whitby Town (Parish) Councillors who have engaged in the verbal abuse of fellow Members in open Meetings, as attested to by the Town Mayor in her email to me of 1st September 2014.
- The names of those Whitby Town (Parish) Councillors who have engaged in the verbal abuse of Officers of Scarborough Borough Council in open Meetings, as attested to by the Town Mayor in her email to me of 1st September 2014.
- The video-footage, as secured by the Council in pursuit of its Resolution to archive all Council Meetings to provide a true record.
- The ratified “true record” Minutes of any such Meetings as will confirm the Mayor’s assertion (which I assume to be truthful) and possibly identify the Councillors who have engaged in said conduct.
- The name of the Councillor who acted as Chair in the case of such Meetings where such conduct took place.
You do not seem to grasp that it is the responsibility of the Chair of any given Meeting, who is called upon by statute to run an orderly Meeting, to ensure that Councillors do not incriminate themselves in this way.
And you will need to address the matter of how the Deputy Mayor may act as he did in relation to unnamed members of the FP&GP, yet expect that he can engage with them in Full Council as though he had not impugned them in any way at all.
I look forward to a timely response – i.e. well before tomorrow’s Full Council Meeting, which I expect will be videoed and audio-recorded in accordance with the law – irrespective of whether or not the Council adheres to its Resolution to do so. Thank you.
It was not long before evidence emerged that shows that the Town Mayor has breached the confidentiality imposed upon her by my heading *** Private & Strictly Confidential ***. At 2:37pm this afternoon, whilst away from my office, I received the following email from the Town Clerk, Pam DOBSON:
I understand from the Town Mayor that you were anticipating a response to your email below, I am sure you will appreciate in my position at the moment I am unable to disclose anything which relates to my grievance. I am sure you will understand that anything I say until the grievance/complaint has been dealt with could prejudice the outcome.
Returning to my office shortly before four o’clock, I responded to the Town Clerk at 4:07pm:
Thank you for your email.
I am concerned to learn that, notwithstanding the fact that my correspondence to (but not from) the Town Mayor has been clearly marked *** Private & Strictly Confidential ***, she has seen fit to breach confidentiality by discussing its contents with at least one other party. I will be returning to you on this point in due course. Meanwhile, the irony of this will not escape you.
I have ascertained, from the source, the answer to my question regarding the Council’s Registered Data Controller status.
I am sure that nothing you were to say would prejudice the outcome of your Grievance/Standards issues – provided always that it were truthful.
I am unable to access the Minutes of the FP&GP Meeting of 17th June 2014 – the web-link erroneously accesses the Agenda, just as does the link to the Agenda. Would you be so good as to attach a copy to an email and send it over for me please, please? Thank you.
Very kind regards,
No doubt there will be further developments, which I look forward to reporting to North York Enquirer readers in due course. Meanwhile, readers are left to wonder – in the age of transparency – exactly what is going on between the various factions amongst the membership of Whitby Town (Parish) Council – and to consider whether or not history is about to repeat itself vis-à-vis the Clerk’s departure from her previous position at Marlborough Town Council, when her Grievance against the Council foundered in some disarray – as I reported on 25th May 2010 – here. For those who prefer not to both following that link, I reproduce the ‘highlights’ (some would say the ‘lowlights’) here:
“What is at issue here is the claimant’s performance of her duties as Responsible Financial Officer,” says Judge Simpson, who conducted the two-day tribunal hearing last month.
“This is a statutory position demanding the highest standards of integrity and in this regard her failure to collect rent herself is, in our finding, a failure that falls within the range of gross misconduct: reasonably and properly causing the respondent (the town council) to lose trust and confidence in her as its Responsible Financial Officer.”
“In reaching this conclusion, we have regard for the fact that the claimant (Mrs Dobson) was occupying a well-paid position and that she did not, as she should have done, bring the matter of arrears to the notice of the council. And, that when it became known that arrears existed, failed to perform her promise to establish a standing order to cover future payments of rent.”
“Mrs Dobson’s actions, as several councillors have suggested, could have been passed to the police for investigation, as a mis-use of public office and a possible offence under the Fraud Act.
“We accept that confidential information as to the rent arrears did appear in the press, but it was without our lawful authority. The facts, nevertheless, were a matter of considerable public interest.”
It is unfortunate, and unsatisfactory, that neither the Town Clerk nor the Town Mayor appears to hold either transparency or the public interest in much regard at all. And it goes without saying that I will be the one who takes the brunt of the criticism for having had the effrontery to tell the world what some Councillors regard as being nothing whatsoever to do with the electorate – “the great unwashed”. They forget that all of the Council busines is our business. We have a right to know. And we have a right to share our knowledge.
My thanks to the many hundreds of social media users who help in that way. Salute!