The idea of informally publishing draft minutes, prior to approval of the minutes by the town council, is on the whole a transparent and good idea.
The draft minutes of the last ordinary town council meeting, held on 14 July, are interesting both for their content and also for some things that are not referred to in them.
The numbering system of council minutes is still inefficient and nonsensical. We shall see if the modernisation so that the system reads Minute 15/1, Minute 15/2, etc happens in the new year 2015.
A member of the public let off steam over disruption on Whitle Rd while some building works were going on. When making complaints it is essential that they are in writing and directed to the correct authority: in this case it’s planning and so High Peak Borough Council needs to be the recipient, not the local town council.
Being unfamiliar with the area, the minute-taker understandably called it ‘Whitehall Road’, which will no doubt be corrected in the approved minutes.
Local personality Jeff Lawton succinctly set out the history and facts regarding payment of annual insurance premiums for the First Aid caravan that is used at public events in the town.
Mind your briefs
Quite shocking, and very interesting, is the dropping of Chafes solicitors by the town council.
It would appear that in 2013 Chafes may have been running up legal work on the instruction of Mrs Susan Stevens and/or a local councillor, and charging the time to the New Mills town council credit account with the firm. It is not suggested that Chafes knew that these individual(s) did not have the authority at this time to run up bills with Chafes on the town council’s credit account.
However a few years ago Craig O’Hara, one of Chafes partners, advised former New Mills town clerk Susan Stevens that council money - the public’s money - could or should be used to mount a defamation claim to try to protect the reputations of former members of the town council.
At that time, any council in England and Wales could only spend public money where it had specific legal authority to do so. No statute or legal precedent existed authorising any council to spend money on defamation.
However, according to an internal Chafes timesheet seen by High Peak Transparency, the billing amount to New Mills town council run up on the ‘defamation’ matter in 2010 was in the region of £5,000.
That is public money, and it is in the public interest that the council taxpayers of New Mills should know these facts.
Public Bodies and Defamation
Additionally, the law had already been definitively decided, by appeal to the House of Lords no less, that no council - or indeed any public body - could maintain a legal action for defamation.
This landmark case also had a New Mills connection: the person who wanted a council to be able to use public money to sue people for defamation was none other than Martin Doughty, former New Mills councillor and Leader of Derbyshire County Council.
It cost Derbyshire County Council - or rather the taxpayers of Derbyshire which includes the High Peak - about half a million pounds to lose this first major legal dispute that progressed transparency in local government.
Nigel Davis Solicitors has been appointed new legal advisers to New Mills town council.
Correct process of a public body
It was stated in the chairman’s report that the only legal place council decisions may be made was in the council chamber in a properly constituted meeting of the council.
For completeness, this includes a properly constituted committee of the council or a matter that has been correctly delegated by the council to either the Proper Officer or Responsible Financial Officer.
Hopefully, this means the bad old nasty New Mills council days of former Labour councillors Martin Doughty or Dishonest Ian Huddlestone going off and doing bad things then expecting ‘ratification’ by their friends in a council meeting are permanently over.
Fraudulent ‘village green’ claims spring to mind.
HR Consultants - genuine and false
The contract with the HR consultant - the genuine Tall Poppies HR consultancy - came to an end. They may be engaged again when the Employment Tribunal claim by the two sacked former staff members is heard in the new year.
This only leaves the matter of the fake company set up by New Mills town councillor Alistair Stevens, passing off by Cllr Stevens as 'Tall Poppies HR consultants'.
From the transparency in local government point of view, it is disappointing that the New Mills town council has not yet demanded - as a formal agenda item - the explanation from Councillor Alistair Stevens why he formed this limited company using the same name as the HR consultants to the council.
In the absence of any public comment from Cllr Stevens to the contrary, clearly the only possible explanations are:
- Personal dishonesty of a New Mills councillor (Cllr Alistair Stevens is not in the Human Resources business)
- Maliciousness and vindictiveness (The council instructed the genuine HR company to oversee the termination of the unsuitable town clerk, who was and is married to Councillor Alistair Stevens)
The acting responsible financial officer (‘RFO’) noted in his report that the internal auditor ‘feels she is unable to audit the accounts under the circumstances of possible court appearances’.
Butler-Cook have been appointed as specialist auditors to conduct a detailed examination in the nature of a forensic audit of town council accounting transactions going back up to ten years.
The acting RFO offered to extend his temporary appointment until the latest Audit is finalised and agreed.
What is this payment for?
An Accounts for Payment list was presented to the council. However, it currently only has three columns: Account Ref, Account Name, and Amount.
For councillors to make proper sense of this, it needs an additional ‘Particulars’ column, so it is clear in all cases what the payment is for.
Knowing the inadequacies of Sage Accounts in this Purchase Ledger area of financial reporting, the necessary additional information may have to be furnished by creating an Excel spreadsheet from the Sage report, then adding the ‘Particulars’ column manually.