EDA “Intense disquiet” with Chief Executive’s letter to councillors

Mark Williams’ letter this morning to all EDDC Councillors has provoked a strong response from the East Devon Alliance.
The Chief Executive’s letter is recorded in our earlier post http://eastdevonalliance.org/2014/11/12/mark-williams-on-unfortunate-circumstances-arising-from-g-brown-case/

This critical analysis of it, addressed to the Chairman, has been circulated to all O&S councillors today, on behalf of EDA:

To Cllr Tim Wood, Chair of EDDC Overview and Scrutiny Committee
Dear Councillor Wood,
We are writing to you to express our intense disquiet with the Chief Executive’s letter to councillors today following the Police announcement that they have completed their investigation into the activities of ex-councillor Graham Brown.
Leaving aside the question of whether the police inquiry could be described accurately as “extensive” and “robust” (please see the EDA press release attached) we object strongly to the tone and content of Mr Williams’ letter for the following reasons:
1. The CEO describes the TAFF inaccurately – it’s actually the Business TAFF not the “EDBF TAFF”.
2. He under-estimates the close involvement of EDDC and EDBF saying merely that the council provided “secretarial and administrative support”. He omits to mention council funding, and the fact that a senior officer (Nigel Harrison) was allowed to play a pivotal role in the organisation and lobbying activities of the EDBF. He also ignores the fact that in 2007, an EDBF committee was permitted to denigrate a consultant’s report concerning employment land, and propose recommendations to relax planning restrictions which were accepted soon afterwards by the Council.
3. He falsely implies that the TAFF was established amid the “unfortunate circumstances” and “febrile atmosphere” of the Telegraph revelations. In fact the TAFF was established in September 2012, six months before the Telegraph report and before EDA existed.
4. He falsely claims that those calling for the TAFF “were mainly Cllr C Wright and the East Devon Alliance/Save Our Sidmouth”. This would hardly explain why a majority of the OSC committee voted to begin such an investigation. As the minutes of the OSC (September 2012) show, Cllrs Stuart Hughes and Graham Troman played an important role in arguing that a TAFF should look at the influence of the EDBF over the draft Local Plan, especially in relation to the 12-acre business park proposed for Sidford.
5. He falsely implies that community groups were looking to smear individuals with allegations of “improper behaviour”. The concern of groups like SOS was that there existed serious conflicts of interest when councillors and officers were intimately involved in the lobbying activities of a group that represented landowners and developers. These concerns were subsequently proved to have been justified. As Cllr Twiss wrote to councillors on 17 March 2013, the chair of EDBF was revealed to have engaged in “inappropriate actions” which “brought the council into disrepute”
6. Mr Williams is disingenuous in claiming that “G. Brown chaired the Forum in his capacity as a representative of the NFU (not in his then capacity as an East Devon District Cllr”). It is impossible to disentangle his role as Chair from his role as a very senior councillor, with considerable influence in changing council planning policy which benefitted EDBF members, and on the shaping of the (stalled) Local Plan.
7. Mr Williams claims “the scope for the TAFF is vague and there are a number of caveats.” This could possibly be due to his unwarranted interference in the conduct of the TAFF. In advising, for example, that planning matters could not be discussed and preventing the Economic Development Manager from attending. He has also been accused of manipulating the minutes of the TAFF.
8. He falsely suggests that “it now makes sense to reconsider what is wanted” because it would be inappropriate for the TAFF to continue to ask probing questions as the police inquiry has been called off. The TAFF has never been concerned with possible illegal activities, but with the relationship between council and businesses, apparent conflicts of interest, and possible undue influence on council policy from a lobby group.
9. Mr Williams tells councillors “If a version of the TAFF is to continue the purpose needs to be quite specific and not some generalisation which would otherwise enable the TAFF to justify any and all lines of enquiry they choose to pursue.”
It is completely inappropriate for a Chief Executive to appear to be dictating what a Scrutiny committee should or should not discuss. Constitutionally the OSC must be completely free to hold the leadership to account.
10. Finally, and most seriously, Mr Williams implies that Cllr C Wright and EDA had been in contact with the police and somehow were responsible for a climate of “taint, innuendo or implication (sic!) ” that gave rise to the TAFF.
As said before, the formation of the TAFF predates the existence of the EDA, and the Alliance views this comment as, not only inaccurate, but bordering on the defamatory.
Mr Williams’ thinly veiled suggestion that Cllr Wright should be removed from the OSC because she could not “come to the matter with an open mind” is outrageous. It is totally inappropriate for a senior officer to attempt to influence the composition of a Scrutiny committee by suggesting a named councillor be excluded. This is possibly a serious breach of the Constitution of the Council and of the Officers’ Code of Conduct.
We hope, Cllr Wood, that you will take the opportunity at tomorrow’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee to completely disassociate yourself, and your Committee from Mr Williams’ intemperate and ill-judged comments.
Yours sincerely,
Tony Green
On behalf of the East Devon Alliance