The ongoing saga between Rothbury Parish Council and a 'dissident elector' entered the courtroom today as a tribunal on information requests began.
It relates to requests for information relating to complaint procedures, records management and a contract for gardening services from the parish council made by resident Tony Kell in April last year, which were refused on the basis that they were 'vexatious', under section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
Mr Kell referred the issue to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which found in favour of the council in October last year - a decision he subsequently appealed. The ICO was not represented at the first-tier tribunal (information rights), which took place in North Shields, meaning the parish council and Mr Kell went head to head at today's appeal hearing.
But despite the narrow remit of the tribunal in relation to the specific appeal on the refused information requests and despite numerous warnings from Judge David Farrer, Mr Kell used his time on the witness stand and his questioning of witnesses - he was representing himself - to cover a wide-ranging series of issues and grievances.
Responding to Judge Farrer's queries over the relevance of some of these issues, he said he was providing context. During the morning, which was taken up by Mr Kell being cross-examined, he said: "My objective through all of this is that the people of Rothbury get a legally-compliant council that's relatively open and transparent."
However, during cross-examination, Robin Hopkins, representing Rothbury Parish Council, tried to drill down into any evidence of issues that had been upheld by external bodies, including the police, county council and ongoing concerns from external auditors BDO, all of whom have received complaints about the parish council. Mr Kell did not produce any, but referring to the 2012 external audit, he said: "Procedures were created after the very critical report, but they were not implemented."
Mr Hopkins also asked about the complaints log drawn up by a parish councillor which Mr Kell had described as 'ludicrous'. Asked why, he said that some were records of conversations he had, others were 'observations' and that multiple 'observations' in one email had been separated into different entries in the log.
Referring to the four emails sent on April 14 last year - the subject of the appeal - Mr Hopkins asked for the specific information which had not been received. Mr Kell himself had conceded he had received a partial response, but felt he had not had an answer about the complaints-handling procedure and the whereabouts of the parish council's minutes book.
But Mr Kell's motives were questioned by Judge Farrer, who referred to an email Mr Kell sent to parish councillor Debbie Noble, which described her as a 'passenger', the parish council as 'a basket case' and said: 'My personal view is that your contribution to the parish council has been poor'. Asked if he thought that was the type of approach he thought Mrs Noble would welcome, Mr Kell said: "Sometimes people need direct messages. She appeared to welcome it the previous day (during a face-to-face conversation)."
Judge Farrer said: "It may be it's argued on behalf of the council that you weren't really seeking information because you wanted the information or thought it was necessary to the good governance of the parish council, but to get one up on the councillors you thought were incompetent. Were you simply teaching them a lesson about your grasp of these issues being better?" Mr Kell said he believed his grasp was better, but denied that this was his motivation.
Another member of the tribunal panel, Paul Taylor, asked about what Mr Kell had referred to as a 'continuing campaign' and was told: "The purpose is to return Rothbury Parish Council, which is supposed to represent the electors of Rothbury, to legal process," he added, referring to 'openness, honesty, transparency and protection of public money'.
Following his evidence, Mr Kell then wanted to call witnesses to give evidence that had not been submitted as part of the witness statements. After much to-ing and fro-ing, Judge Farrer refused this request, explaining that it was exceptional in any case and the panel had 'grave doubts' as to whether it would be of any assistance to the case.
Mr Hopkins had no questions of the witnesses on behalf of the parish council, but indicated that this was due to the questionable relevance of the evidence. Mr Kell did eventually call Georgina Hill, who attended the disrupted Rothbury Parish Council meeting at which a heated altercation took place, but it was on the proviso that it was to clarify aspects of the evidence in her statement. Judge Farrer's limitations on the questioning sparked a frustrated Ms Hill to describe the concept of evidence being neither accepted nor tested as 'perverse'.
The afternoon saw Rothbury Parish Council clerk, Claire Miller, and chairman, Mark Gilson, take to the witness stand where they were cross-examined by Mr Kell on a range of issues, many only tangentially linked to the appeal issue, as previously mentioned. He raised issues including, but not limited to, access to the minutes book; discrepancies between different sets of minutes for the same meeting; the handling of complaints; the archiving of documents; standing orders; his name and address being published in a set of minutes; the purchase of grass-cutting equipment; exposing confidential medical data; the chairman making unilateral spending decisions; declarations of interest; harassment; and parish councillors encouraging electors to allow them to co-opt new members rather than paying for elections.
The hearing was adjourned and another half-day, for closing arguments to be made, is expected to take place in May or June with a decision to be published afterwards. A second tribunal is also slated for June after Mr Kell appealed another ICO decision in January this year.