4 April 2009

Accounts and accountability

In recent months I've been making the occasional visit to the Tin Dunny to have a look at the financial records of Somerton Town Council and they make interesting reading, not just for the mind-boggling amounts of wonga that the STC are sploodging but for the way that its being sploodged.

I've often commented on the seeming irrelevance of Town Council meetings, not because the Town Council is irrelevant (hush my mouth) but because the meetings themselves never seem to be used as a platform for discussion. The big decisions, to sploodge or not to sploodge, all seem to be taken somewhere else and the Town Council meetings themselves are used to rubber-stamp those decisions.

Now, for a long while I laboured under the misapprehension that there MUST be some committee of worthies who would gather together to consider the BIG decisions and for most councils in the real world, that would be a Finance Committee. But now I discover that Somerton Town Council ...................... doesn't have a Finance Committee. So how do decisions get made? Well, again quoting Toya Wilcox, its a mystewee.

This absence of a Finance Committee makes it doubly hard to trace the genesis of any decision. There is almost nothing recorded in the Minutes of the Town Council and, as there is no Finance Committee, there is no trace of any discussion, debate, argument or consideration. So, from the outside, how do you find out what was decided and when? Well, the obvious answer is to 'Ask the Town Clerk' but there you run into a bureaucratic problem.

Earlier this year Somerton Town Council adopted a Freedom of Information publication scheme, which is all well and good if you, the innocent or concerned member of the public know what you want to look at. But, for all the reasons above, a concerned member of the public (eg. myself) can't know what documents to look at or for. The situation is made more complicated because, as far as I know, there is no published schedule showing what documents are available. So, a concerned member of the public gets hit with a £25 per hour charge for finding the documents that they might want to see. Neat huh! Just a tad 'Catch 22' if you ask me. I see a job for 'Anti-Bureaucracy Man' (aka Cllr Tony Canvin).

And, once you actually get to look at the documents, whatever they may be, its hard to find out, for example, how the decisions to spend the money were taken and, importantly, by whom. As an example, who chooses the contractors who are invited to bid for various works? Take the lunatic idea of building the Sports Club's 'Mini-Dunny'. Setting to one side just who initiated the idea of the Town Council paying for this project, who decided which contractors would be invited to bid? And would there be a contractor from outside the manor to keep the others honest? Certainly not.

This situation could be easily resolved were Somerton Town Council to take the revolutionary step of indulging in some transparency. How about getting the publication list on the website? Some Councils even go as far as publishing detailed accounts on the web. Maybe publish the monthly expenditure on the website to let the community know where its money is going. This way the website might actually start attracting some serious attention instead of using up bandwidth with hopeless and generally irrelevant waffle.

Town Council's, like ours in Somerton, are pretty much the ground floor of our less than perfect Democracy. If there is no way to hold them accountable for sploodging over a £1million on the Tin Dunny, is it any surprise that the Home Secretary's old man charges his 'adult movies' to the taxpayer?

Till next time, may your expense account go with you.