Is our Electoral and Returning Officer Teflon coated?

It would seem so.

East Devon Election and Returning Officer Mark Williams (also CEO of East Devon District Council) rather grudgingly admitted that “things had gone wrong” at the last election but said it would not happen again in this newspaper article published today:

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No mention of the fact that he was hauled in to a Parliamentary Committee to explain why he “lost” 6,000 voters (answer: because he thought his idea of telephoning missing voters was better than the government’s guidance of visiting them), was particularly noted by the Electoral Commission for not following those guidelines, or why East Devon was one of only SEVEN councils out of more than 400 to have made MULTIPLE mistakes. OR that he has been doing the job for years but still doesn’t seem to have got it quite right.

If it were a junior officer or councillor who had not been considered up-to-scratch (particularly an Independent Councillor) would he or she had got off so lightly?

Teflon-coated?

Bucks, so many bucks, so many questions … such a nasty, nasty smell of dirty linen

Now we have had time to digest the findings of the judge in Information Commissioner and Jeremy Woodward (and many, many thanks are due to Jeremy and his occasional stand-in Richard Thurlow for doggedly pursuing this) there are SO many questions to be asked, some of which current commentators have already suggested.  Now, where will the buck stop and who is going to answer questions ?

First and foremost we must be concerned with the damning evidence.  In Tower Hamlets, when the Commissioners arrived to take it over, the first thing they did was sequester ALL documents and correspondence though it is believed that some were already missing.  Is it possible that some of OUR evidence is vulnerable to deletion and shredding?  We hope not but we cannot be sure.  However, traces will abound everywhere and sometimes what is missing throws even more light on what is going on.

At best what has occured is incompetence and, at worst, deceit –  as a correspondent says – which is it?

The questions people are posing:

1.  The different versions of documents and their legibility.  The Judge in the case is STILL not sure he has original documents or all documents.  He says that for months EDDC said that they could not provide legible copies of documents and yet, at the last moment, some turned up.  However, the judge also says that he is not entirely sure they saw ALL the documents they were meant to see – he refers to document 5A when he appears not to have been given document 5, for example.

2.  At the hearing Richard Cohen admitted that he did not give an original version of a document to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee but an “amended” one.  Where is the original copy of THIS document and would it have changed what that committee decided?

3.  Why did EDDC officers and top councillors keep delaying the process.  Were they hopeful that this could be kept under wraps until after the election tomorrow.  They almost managed it if this was the case.

4.  How and why were the decisions to prevaricate made and by whom:  was it CEO/Cohen/Diviani or a larger (or smaller) group?

5.  How will those in (4) above manage to keep this from the NEXT Overview and Scrutiny Committee?

6.  Who decides what goes to an Overview and Scrutiny Committee?  Those in (4) above!  And will it go to the Standards Committee?  (Answer here:  almost certainly not if the same people remain in power).

7.  What is now the position of Knowle sale?

8.  Who takes these decisions – officers and then the councillors are led by the nose, or councillors and then officers are led by the nose or a combination of councillors AND officers and then everyone else is led by the nose?  We know from Councillor Peter Sullivan that, as a Conservative councillor, he was not allowed to see documents.  Who was in the “golden circle”?

9.  Why did NO-ONE blow the whistle when they realised what was happening?  Why was it left to brave Independent councillors, bloggers and – most important – local resident Jeremy Woodward, to uncover this very dirty, dirty linen?

Purdah for local newspapers: a good idea or a bad idea?

Whilst there are government directives regarding the purdah period for councils (to prevent them tying a future to expensive decisions that will affect them) there is no such rule for newspapers.

One local newspaper has today announced that it will operate a purdah period to ensure that candidates are treated fairly, yet another one stated that it would report political news throughout the election period.

Would it be fair if, say, one candidate got a mountain of negative publicity and behaved really badly and one got a mountain of positive publicity and behaved impeccably, to keep this news from readers?

Surely, a fairness policy then appears to protects the least liked and least popular candidates from harm and the most popular and most liked from being given credit. This can then skew election choice. Is that really fair?

Is it perhaps more a case of not wanting to tread on powerful feet?

New Monitoring Officer for EDDC?

Will EDDC have three Monitoring Officers in the space of a year? A specially stressful job in an authority which engenders an unusually high number of complaints, perhaps? Or simply a natural process?
Rumour has it that Henry Gordon Lennox is now poised to take over from interim MO, Ian Clarke, shared with South Somerset District Council.
If so, wonder when and where the job would have been advertised? And how many people applied?

Monitoring Officer: is it a dead end job or a powerful way to exert control?

On the one hand:

“Hands up: who wants to be a monitoring officer?”

“With the recent trend across local government to downgrade the monitoring officer from the top table and new regulations proposed by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to remove the designated independent person from the process of dismissing statutory officers, I am sure that some lawyers within council legal departments will be asking themselves why they should put their head above the parapet and seek to become a monitoring officer in what is an uncertain and changing climate.

… With the move to reduce senior management costs, it is becoming increasingly common for the monitoring officer role to be combined with that of head of legal services. Unfortunately, the roles do require very different skill sets. …

..Don’t underplay this role, however, because as the monitoring officer, your role is to ensure that the council and its members maintain the highest standard of conduct. Your intervention on an informal basis can have a significant impact on the cultures and behaviours of the organisation ….

http://www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=14482:hands-up-who-wants-to-be-a-monitoring-office

On the other hand:

If either a complainant, or the councillor against whom a complaint has been made, is unhappy with the way in which the local authority resolves the complaint, there is no higher authority to which they may appeal. Neither the Local Government Ombudsman nor the Department for Communities and Local Government has a role in respect of councillors’ conduct or registration of pecuniary interests.

The powers of the local authority in relation to alleged breaches are for local determination, following advice from the authority’s Monitoring Officer or legal team. These powers might include censure or the removal of a member from a committee, but the authority cannot disqualify or suspend councillors: suspension was permitted under the 2000 Act regime.”

http://www.parliament.uk/Templates/BriefingPapers/Pages/BPPdfDownload.aspx?bp-id=sn05707

“New and relevant information” – no, says Monitoring Officer

A follow-up email from Sandra Semple see post yesterday):

“Thank you, East Devon Watch for achieving what I could not do alone. This morning an email came from the Monitoring Officer: no, my information was neither new (which it was) nor relevant (which I still believe it was).

My response: we shall see!

What it DOES reveal is that the Monitoring Officer appears to be not just toothless, but gumless, jawless and possibly headless, as, it seems, he can do nothing about anything except where it concerns a councillor of a minority party, in which case a Monitoring Officer (the previous one so far) goes in with all guns blazing. Hmmm.”

EDDC Monitoring Officer and complaints

We have received the following email from Sandra Semple. This is a personal view only and does not necessarily represent the view of this blog:

“May I point out that the district council spokesperson, who has said in a recent newspaper report that “As far as Mark Williams, chief executive of East Devon District Council is aware, there is no new and relevant evidence that would give cause to reopen either the Councillor Twiss or Councillor Wragg cases” is incorrect.

I submitted new and relevant information on one of these cases in December 2014 in two specific areas relating to the Council’s Code of Conduct and the Council’s Media Policy. In early January 2015 I urged that the Monitoring Officer to give me his decision on this new and relevant information in good time so that, if this information did indeed matter, it could go to the late January 2015 Standards Board Meeting which was then about 3 weeks away.

To date, I have heard nothing from the Monitoring Officer and my 2 complaints are not included in those dismissed, unless he has dismissed them without letting me know.

It seems unlikely that they were amongst those dismissed as I wrote to him recently saying that if he did not make a decision on my new and relevant information before the next Standards Board scheduled for March 2015 it would be likely that we would not know the outcome of these complaints before district council elections.

As the Monitoring Officer has cleared so many complaints he obviously has time to deal with these outstanding complaints now, although as he still appears to work full-time for Mark Williams sister council in South Somerset, perhaps he is not finding it easy to deal with his workload in East Devon.”