Requests to hold extraordinary meetings of both the audit committee and the full council were made in the days following chief executive Daljit Lally being placed on ‘extended leave’ just after she emailed all county councillors with what she claimed were ‘serious whistle-blowing concerns’.
The row with the Conservative administration – with a range of allegations and counter-allegations in leaked emails – led to the successful motion of no confidence in the former leader Peter Jackson.
And then acting chief executive, Kelly Angus, suggested the decision not to allow the audit committee to meet extraordinarily was made by councillors, not officers, as the issue reared its head at the Wednesday, September 30, meeting of the committee.
Cllr David Towns, a Conservative, said: “I have no problem with having an audit committee meeting to look at the risks posed by having a change in terms of the leadership at officer level and the chief executive being on extended leave and the risk to the council in terms of governance of the allegations being made.
“We are not a scrutiny committee, we are not – as you have said, chairman – a court and we are certainly not a kangaroo court. I think we need to be very, very careful sitting here talking about allegations as if they were fact; these are not proven facts. Our job is to make sure due process is followed.”
Cllr Towns suggested that the extraordinary meeting did not go ahead because of the advice of the council’s internal auditors, but the chairman, Cllr Georgina Hill, an independent, said that this was not the case.
The authority’s director of corporate assurance, Allison Mitchell, said that she had advised Cllr Hill that it was not the appropriate time to hold an extraordinary meeting, based on the committee’s role ‘to maintain oversight of matters of governance and matters of risk and control’, although she said there may be a time in the future when there is information that the committee would expect to see.
However, she added: “Cllr Hill’s point about who makes decisions on things like extraordinary audit committees, whether we have written rules of procedure that we can all look at and see what the process would be, I think there is clear evidence that that could do with some strengthening within the organisation.
“It was unclear how the decision would be made, who would make the decision and, as Cllr Hill just confirmed, she didn’t receive an answer on that.”
Later in the meeting, Labour’s Cllr Ian Swithenbank said that chairmen should only be refused the right to hold a meeting if there was a clear legal reason.
“What I’ve heard here today doesn’t cover that,” he said. “Who took the decision? If I’ve ever seen an administration draw attention to itself by making hasty decisions, I’ve certainly seen it in recent weeks and I don’t like it, because it damages the reputation of local government in Northumberland.
“The administration appointed the chairman of this committee, it wouldn’t have been my choice but that is what it is. She thought it was necessary to have a meeting and was denied it, that’s disrespect.”
Cllr Nick Oliver, the Conservative cabinet member for corporate services, then said that he had seen an email from the acting chief executive, which said that it was felt that it was inappropriate to hold a meeting, based on advice from the monitoring officer, internal and external auditors.
However, Ms Angus said that there had been further discussions following this email, including a second request from Cllr Hill, adding: “Just to be clear, it wasn’t an officer decision as to why the meeting shouldn’t be convened, if I can just leave it at that.”