29 November 2013

The Minutes And The Times


The Minutes

The minutes of council meetings must be published.  There have been several complaints sent in to this website that the New Mills town council official website - where its minutes are published - is not up to date.

We have deferred publication of the above complaints to give the council the opportunity to bring its website up to date.  There have been legitimate reasons for these unfortunate delays, during the recent full-blown town hall crisis.

At the time of this article, there are now only two town council meetings whose minutes are not yet on the NMTC official website.  When these two sets of minutes are posted there, the council’s website will be back up to date.

The two meetings with missing minutes are 9 September and 12 August 2013.

(Since this article was written, both sets of minutes have been published on the NMTC website, which brings this matter fully up to date.)

The Times

This has been the most sensational year in the long history of the New Mills local council.  The year started with a dishonest town clerk firmly running matters inside the council offices.

The name of the dishonest town clerk was Susan Stevens, now dismissed. Her main protector on the town council was Cllr Alistair Stevens, her husband.  Susan Stevens also had a long-term hold over dishonest Labour Party councillor Ian Huddlestone, who had asked her to deliberately lie to his fellow councillors for him.

It was only when this conspiracy - between Susan Stevens and Ian Huddlestone - was broken, and bad councillors then ran away from their responsibilities by resigning, that the moves were set in motion by good, decent town councillors to thoroughly repair and rehabilitate this council.

Reputation

First the repair and rehabilitation of the council’s processes and activities.  This is the stage we are at now.

Then, in an entirely natural consequence of the above, the restoration of the town council’s previous good reputation will happen over time.

This good reputation had been in place all the way from 1894 up to the summer of 2002. This is well over a century.

However, by the summer of 2002, the town council had become controlled by the local Labour Party.  With their corruption and dishonest antics, some of the local Labour Party councillors have brought shame on the name of the town of New Mills

The Future

So long as the council reforms now continue as they have started, a new period of good reputation for the town council and the town may be dated from 2014 into the future.

In the last few months, many important decisions have been taken by good councillors, and the majority of decisions have been got absolutely right.

The next critical decisions are the permanent appointments (after probationary periods) of the new Responsible Financial Officer and Proper Officer/Town Clerk.

Unlike in the summer of 2002, the posts will be publicly advertised for candidates, rather than well-paid public sector jobs just being given out 'on the nod' by a dishonest Labour councillor from New Mills.


15 November 2013

Council Computers in Police Hands



A shocking fact was revealed by an answer given during the public speaking section of the 11 November 2013 town council meeting:

New Mills town council's computers are in the police’s hands.

This information was given to help explain the recent delays in ordinary council business. As well as being referred to in the above public speaking session, these delays are currently the subject of legitimate comment from the public on this website.

The news that the council computers are in police custody for forensic examination also reveals that there are serious criminal investigations in progress.

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More Details Of The Ongoing Crisis Resolution Emerge At Council Meeting



This is a summary of key parts of the latest New Mills town council meeting, held on Monday 11 November 2013.

Proper publication of council meeting notice and agenda

The agenda for this council meeting was originally not posted on the town’s public notice board, which is in a prominent position in the town at the corner of Hall Street and Spring Bank.

The agenda was originally only posted on the board that is just inside the town hall front doors. These doors are locked against the public for the majority of the time.  This board behind closed, locked doors does not meet the requirement of the law governing public notice of council meetings, which states that: “Notice of the time and place of the meeting must be affixed in some conspicuous place in the locality.” *

When a councillor learned of the above emerging problem, the matter was immediately rectified by the notice and agenda correctly being put on the prominent public notice board.  Thanks are due to this councillor, but it is the Proper Officer of the council’s responsibility to arrange this, not any individual councillor.

Website publication of council agendas and minutes

Regarding the New Mills town council website, the agenda for this meeting was not posted there. This lapse in good public access to both agendas and minutes has now lasted long enough.

The town council website has been effectively inactive for several months now.  In the modern age, the public website is any council’s principal means of communication with its electors and council taxpayers.

It is entirely understandable why there have been delays in updating the official website.  Other matters have needed doing and have had to take priority for limited resources.  Also, the website hosting service would not release the passwords except to a town clerk: when a councillor asked for it in order to update the council website, the password request was refused.  This is the correct protocol and no complaints there.

But it has now been a long time since the suspension of the last town clerk and it is reasonable to ask that normal service to the public now gather pace.

Recording of council meetings

To this observer, the Chair of the council appeared a little defensive about the fact that council meetings are recorded. There have obviously been some objections to this from a councillor or councillors.

The town council is a public body.  Formal recording of council meetings was started by the new LibDem administration in 2007, after the deception, scandals and frauds - including ballot fraud - of the Labour-controlled years inside the New Mills town hall from 2002 onwards.

Formal recording of council meetings was one of the proud changes made immediately after the local Labour party were deservedly thrown out of the council chamber by the public of New Mills in a 12-0 drubbing at the 2007 local elections.

A council’s meetings are the public’s business.  They should be recorded.  If anyone is worried about this, what have they got to hide?

Public speaking

Two members of the public spoke during the period allowed before the formal start of council business.

Paul Mitchell, who is a member of the Green Party, asked two questions: Firstly, is the ex-town clerk Mrs Susan Stevens still being paid; secondly, is New Mills town council solvent?

Tony Lawton, a well-known local figure and father of the local Conservative Association chairman Jeff Lawton, raised the fact that no minutes or agendas have been on the town council website for some time.

Tony Lawton then gave a report on the town's Remembrance parade, and made several other points which are outside the concerns of this website.

More Tall Stories

Mr Lawton's reference to the Australian colloquialism “tall poppies” led to an exchange between councillors in which Cllr David Lamb pointedly asked which of the Tall Poppies companies was being discussed: the genuine business that the council has brought in as professional HR advisers, or the fake company which the Stevens family of Hall Street then formed for the sole purpose of causing confusion and problems.

It is relevant to this 'Tall Poppies' aspect of the council meeting to point out that Susan Stevens is the dishonest former town clerk of New Mills and Alistair Stevens, her husband, is currently a town councillor.

The person named initially on Companies House records as forming the fake 'tall poppies' company is their son Jamie Stevens.  Jamie Stevens was replaced by Alistair in the company's records when he, Jamie, took fright and resigned in a panic from this fake company after the details were exposed on this website. See previous High Peak Transparency articles for all the unedifying details.

Logical inconsistency in the new public speaking rules

Councillor Alistair Stevens wished to make some comments in the public speaking section of the meeting, but was stopped from doing so.  High Peak Transparency’s position on this issue is that councillors do have the right to speak briefly in this section on appropriate matters, so long as it’s after the general public has had its say.

Indeed, councillors do already speak in this section.  If a High Peak Borough Councillor from New Mills is present, or a Derbyshire County Councillor likewise, the public speaking section is where they present their opinions, comments etc. Yet if you are a New Mills town councillor, you are currently prevented from doing so.

This is an illogical and relatively recent change in New Mills town council procedures.

This change, which was suggested in good faith to the town council meeting on 10 June 2013 as a part of the then locum clerk's report (but with no council decision being made about it), reduces accountability and transparency in local public life in New Mills.

If a councillor has views that are unpalatable to the majority, that on its own is no reason for him or her to be silenced at meetings.  If a councillor has good things to say, let them be heard. If a councillor is an unnecessary trouble maker or a bit simple, then it is the public’s right to learn that fact at first hand.

It is the public that pays for all of the council's activities.

There are legitimate differing opinions on this issue of who has access to the public speaking section at town council meetings.

The previous system was working fine.  We say that reverting back to the previous system in this case would improve accountability and transparency in local public life.

Bonfire Collection

Almost £2,000 was collected from the Bonfire Night bucket collection etc.  Two points were made:

Firstly, this was a significant increase compared to the last few years;

Secondly, the money was counted and checked by three councillors and one independent observer.

Good fences make good neighbours

Another sign of welcome recent changes in town council procedures is that facts are being established first, before action is taken.

The issue here is the fence between a former quarry on Hague Bar, now owned by High Peak Borough Council, and much higher ground which was transferred from HPBC to New Mills Town Council as part of the High Lee Park land transfer.

The former quarry has a steep cliff face, which for Health and Safety reasons needs to be made inaccessible from that higher part of High Lee Park which adjoins it.  Another reason for fencing off this dangerous location is... er... common sense.

This fencing matter has been discussed in meeting after meeting of the town council over the years, and countless person-hours wasted.  Sensible, informed discussion was not helped by an apparent claim by the park manager that a decent fence “would cost £50,000”.  Until Mr Lewis mentioned this figure, we were unaware that gold-plating and diamond-encrusted finish is available as a fencing option.

Council establishes facts before acting shock

The acting town clerk, Ms Bramwell, now notified the meeting of a novel departure from the previous way this council did business.   She has requested all the original deeds be sent to the town council from the solicitor who carried out the land conveyance, and requested copies of the relevant title documents from Land Registry.

Hopefully the title documents for both of the properties - the former quarry and the park - have been ordered by the town council from Land Registry.

After these primary documents are in the town council’s possession, it will then be possible to definitively establish proper boundaries and responsibility for fencing.

Here is the lesson.  Life is simpler, and meetings are a lot calmer, when council decisions follow investigation and establishment of the facts, rather than the other way around.

This new clarity and common sense is to be praised, and long may it continue in the New Mills council chamber.

Wisdom dictates that two roles involving public money means two separate officers

A councillor first mentioned this subject to High Peak Transparency’s editor a few months ago. This was when the former town clerk - who was also the Responsible Financial Officer and Proper Officer - first started being regularly absent from the office.

There are two statutory officer roles in local (i.e., town and parish level) council business.  These are Responsible Financial Officer and Proper Officer.

The wise, cautious local council has two separate people for the two roles.  If both roles are in the hands of one person, the potential for financial error and fraud is magnified.

Permanently separating these two roles is a vital next step in the recovery to full health of New Mills town council.  This issue will be the subject of a standalone High Peak Transparency article, because more space is needed for analysis and explanation of this critical part of a council’s business than is available here.

Inadequate time for an essential role

One of the great mysteries of town council business over the last few months was solved at this council meeting.

It turns out that the main reason various important town hall matters are being delayed, or not completed, or only partially completed, is very simple: the acting town clerk is currently only authorised to work ten hours a week.

There is no way that a town clerk at a council with this size and responsibilities can properly perform both its legally required functions and also the necessary additional jobs like maintaining a website in good up-to-date order, dealing with land transfer matters, handling queries from the public, etc etc etc, in only ten hours per week.

The acting town clerk Ms Bramwell mentioned that this issue was down to be rectified - or at least looked at - in the last Personnel and Finance sub-committee meeting.  This was the latest meeting that was abandoned due to disruption.


* Section 232 and Schedule 12, paragraph 10 (2) of the Local Government Act 1972



Please note: the above article may be updated as further information and comments - valid comments only - are received.

08 November 2013

Dishonest Town Clerk In Bid For Town Hall Reinstatement

"Darling, get me out of here. And why is Councillor Huddlestone wearing a ginger wig?"

The dishonest former town clerk of New Mills, Mrs Susan Stevens, is making an audacious attempt to restart work inside the town hall where she brought shame onto the name of the town.

The first appeal against her dismissal - which was without notice on the grounds of gross misconduct - will be heard by an independent panel before the end of this month.

After that, Mrs Stevens' final appeal opportunity would be before an employment tribunal.

Any employment tribunal hearing would be held in public, with reporting allowed, and would have to take place within approximately three months.

The reinstatement bid is supported by her husband, discredited New Mills town councillor Alistair Stevens.

Councillor Alistair Stevens circulated an email to all the other councillors, when the dishonesty and wrongdoing inside the town hall office started to be uncovered, in which he stated his priority as being “to protect the staff”.  Not to investigate the wrongdoing and misuse of public money within this public body, but to protect the staff involved in the wrongdoing.

How can we openly refer to Mrs Susan Stevens as dishonest? Because we have the documentary proof in our possession.

We also understand that Mrs Stevens’ use of a New Mills town council credit account with a local firm in the town has been discovered and stopped by the council.  It is to be hoped that the public's money is recovered, using the courts if necessary.





POSTSCRIPT: A report of the latest town council meeting, held on 11 November 2013, will be posted here on High Peak Transparency shortly.

01 November 2013

Official Statement From New Mills Town Council, And Latest Disruption At Council Meeting



On 31 October 2013 the following statement was issued formally by New Mills Town Council regarding the recent events and dramatic changes at the town hall:
"Following a difficult few months in which a thorough and rigorous investigation has taken place, it has been decided that the contracts of two employees should be terminated.
"The Town Council followed all appropriate procedures in reaching the decision, which was not taken lightly.
"As a Council we are proud of New Mills, and are committed to ensuring that we act in a way that enables the town to put their trust in our Council.
"We intend to continue working to ensure that we can lead the town from strength to strength.
"Anyone wishing to raise any matters is encouraged to put them in writing to The Chair, Gwyn Bowers, at the Town Hall."
The postal address is: New Mills Town Council, Town Hall, Spring Bank, New Mills, High Peak, SK22 4AT.

The above statement is headed 'Initial Statement'.  It is to be hoped that a fuller, detailed statement will be issued by the town council as soon as possible.

The first employee referred to is Mrs Susan Stevens the dishonest former town clerk, and the second is a clerical assistant and sometime manager of the Heritage Centre in the town.

Meeting abandoned

The above official statement was issued after another town hall committee meeting was disrupted and could not run to a conclusion.

The members of the particular committee are councillors Ray Atkins, Andy Bowers, Rev John Baines, Jacqui Gadd, and David Lamb.

The fly in the ointment/person-of-colour in the woodpile was Alistair Stevens.  He refused to leave the room, claiming that he was entitled to stay because he was a councillor.

Cllr Alistair Stevens
Cllr Alistair Stevens is not a member of the committee.  A reasonable person is therefore entitled to ask: 'why was he there, if he isn't a member of the committee?'

The disruption happened at a meeting of the Personnel and Finance Sub-Committee arranged for Wednesday 30 October 2013.

A couple of facts are relevant to this.  Cllr Stevens is married to Susan Stevens, the recently sacked town clerk of New Mills.  It is a fact that he cannot lawfully be present where matters relating to discipline, grievance, or pay and conditions etc of the ex-town clerk are going to be discussed at a meeting.

However, the town clerk of New Mills is no longer Mrs Susan Stevens. She has been dismissed because of her gross misconduct in that office, albeit with some hangover of perhaps a speculative 'compensation culture' claim being attempted.

Accordingly, some (but not all) of the statutory prohibitions on Cllr Stevens' attendances at council meetings that relate to ex-town clerk Mrs Stevens have been removed by her dismissal.

The other question still remains: if Cllr Stevens is not an appointed member of a committee, then why was he there?

Before blame can properly be apportioned for this latest unnecessary disruption of the council's proper business we await further, accurate, details of this latest meeting being abandoned.

These persistent disruptions and stoppages of council meetings mean that there is now a backlog of decisions building up that need taking by the council.