Councillor answers the criticism

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The election period is over for a while and the people have spoken. It is now time to shine some light on the catalogue of misinformation provided by the writer of last week’s letter, Response to criticism.

By coincidence, he suddenly became aware of ‘irregularities in the management of our council’ immediately after Rothbury Parish Council (RPC) decided not to support his objection to a planning request by a neighbour and refused to apologise to him for putting his name and address in the minutes of a public meeting where he freely gave them. This is what he calls a ‘contravention of the Data Protection Act’ which it is not.

He mentions ‘an adverse report from the external auditor’. Every year external audit reports offer advice to parish councils on a range of issues, which they are asked to consider and discuss but are not legally required to accept.

There were three in 2012, all of which were implemented within the financial year. In some years, for some councils, reports are issued where something must be done by a set deadline. One such issue was raised for RPC in 2012.

The government-appointed external auditor could not find evidence that a formal risk assessment of all activities had been carried out. RPC is a small parish council and everything it does is reviewed at every monthly meeting, but to comply, a full formal risk assessment was carried out well ahead of the deadline. It is now scheduled for the same month every year.

RPC did not send correspondence to him threatening legal action. In 2013 some individual parish councillors, not surprisingly, wondered if the law could protect them from his campaign of negative criticism and harassment.

He has now generated over 200 complaints, grumbles or expressions of discontent about RPC, to the council, to individuals and to outside bodies.

He has sent formal complaints to RPC, the local MP, Northumberland County Council, the Office of the Information Commissioner (twice) and the external auditor. If we had been illegal or in breach of financial regulations we would already have been closed down and barred.

He complains about lack of access to RPC documents. All documents discussed at RPC meetings are tabled before the start and are open to any members of the public.

They include the internal and external audit reports. Extra copies of budget papers, accounts, new or revised governance documents and other key papers are made available to members of the public present at meetings.

Issues raised in internal and external audit reports are read out in public and decisions taken on how to deal with them. Financial documents relating to annual audit have, by law, to be notified as being available to the public between certain dates - there is a notice on our board now.

He took advantage of that in 2012 and 2013. In 2013 he was shown every document relating to the previous financial year and given his own copy of the external audit report. He has asked to do the same for 2014 and this is being arranged for him.

Draft minutes go on the board, into the library and onto the RPC website. Governance documents are on the web site. Over recent years the chairman’s annual report has been on the parish council noticeboard.

Since 2012 he has made over 100 demands of RPC of which more than 60 were agreed, including four requests to speak at parish council meetings.

He has demanded to see or be sent copies of over 100 parish council documents. He has seen, or been sent by RPC or individual councillors, over 70 parish council documents covering over 700 sides of A4. Every time one demand is satisfied, more appear. The sole intention seems to be to find something more to complain about.

His election material suggested that parish councillors were not trained. He has never asked, so how does he know? I have attended nine courses covering most aspects of parish council business.

His material suggested we know little about Freedom of Information (FOI) or the Data Protection Act (DPA). I have worked for over 40 years for six different local authorities, working with sensitive, personal and confidential information. I have been on many courses on DPA and FOI run by government, local government and specialist trainers.

His material suggested we do not know about changes in legislation over the last 10 to 20 years.

We subscribe to a government-recognised expert body that runs training courses for us and briefs us, sometimes weekly, on every relevant change in the law. I attend meetings with them every two months on a Saturday morning in Morpeth, in my own time and at my own expense, to keep up to date.

He gives the impression that RPC does not reply to him. Every demand and request has been replied to by RPC except the latest list from the last weeks where a reply is being prepared. Responding is difficult as he is the only resident in Rothbury who will not accept correspondence from RPC by Royal Mail. He insists it has to go through his solicitor.

The man who says RPC is not transparent enough interrupted the end of the May RPC meeting to remind us that he had placed a ‘stop’ notice on the processing of his name. Which means RPC and councillors can not say it, write it, type it or even think about it.

I am afraid I replied in similar fashion that it could not be done as he sends us letters every week. If we followed his instruction we would not be able to open or read any letter with his name on it, now there’s a thought.

Jeff Reynalds,

Rothbury Parish Councillor