11 May 2009

The door opens just a crack.

This entry in the blog was going to return to the issue of 'transparency' or, more accurately, the lack of it in the affairs of Somerton's Town Council. However, when I attended Tuesday evening's meeting of the Town Council I was surprised to find that the Council has decided to dip its toe in the transparency pool. The Agenda & Minutes included April's expenditure figures plus a gobbeldygook spreadsheet which purported to show the Council's current financial position.

From my own memory this is the first time the outgoings have been published to the public and I wonder if this is a sign of 'change is coming'. Or maybe, just maybe, the Town Council is beginning to wake from its collective stupor to realise that the sploodgefest of the last 12 months cannot continue. Possibly the Town Council are beginning to see the size of the hole that they have dug for Somerton. Maybe this publication is the first part of a softening-up process to prepare us for the sale of the Tin Dunny.

Up till Tuesday evening, Somerton Town Council's almost complete lack of transparency has been the single significant cause of the community's lack of confidence in the Council. Why, if everything is regulated appropriately, should there be any problem with the public knowing, in detail, what the Town Council is doing? From my own experience, its also true to say that when an organisation resists reasonable enquiries the obvious conclusion is that they have something to hide.

On Wednesday I was listening to Radio 4 and I heard one of our MPs (Norman Lamb) say, with reference to the Westminster Gravy Train, "If you have a secret system, you create the conditions for abuse.". That observation pretty much sums up the situation that I see here in Somerton.

I have been making enquiries of Somerton Town Council for the last couple of months and the Council hasn't made things easy for me. In comparison, last week I met a senior staffer at Somerset County Council after a Freedom of Information enquiry regarding the site at Etsome Terrace. I was given access to files, had the chance to discuss the site for almost an hour and, at the end, was handed a bundle of copy documents. The cost to me? Nothing. Nada. Rien. Nichts. ничто.

When I've tried to do the same thing with Somerton Town Council I have ended up facing an 'administration' charge of £25 per hour plus the cost of copying. Bear in mind that Somerton Town Council has full time staffing to ensure, presumably, that the Council's records are in good order.

Now, the Somerton situation wouldn't be quite so bad if the concerned member of the public had confidence in the regulation of business in Somerton Town Council. But this particular concerned member of the public doesn't have very much confidence in the way that events chez Tin Dunny are overseen notwithstanding the decision to publish the monthly 'money sploodge digest'.

Somerton Town Council has appointed two 'internal auditors' whose job, I assume, is to scrutinise the financial business of the Town Council and make sure that it is regulated appropriately. The first problem with this situation is to ask whether or not the councillors in question, Cllrs Deering and Neale, know anything about 'appropriate regulation'. Forgive me for suggesting that they don't.

On one of my visits to the Dunny I looked at the invoices that the Town Council receives and its hard to see if any of these invoices are part of specified work. Without a specification, how are our 'Internal Auditors' meant to know if the charges are justified? Possibly more importantly, if there is no 'competitive tendering' how can our 'internal auditors' establish if the charges are reasonable or not? The answer to both questions is that they can't.

This situation would be less of a problem if the concerned member of the public could have confidence in the neutrality of the 'internal auditors'. But when the 'internal auditors' support a proposal, agreed by the Council, not to seek competitive tenders, then there are serious grounds for doubting the integrity of Somerton Town Council's audit process.

And one of the invoices that the Town Council has received, and paid, is this one:

As you can see, this is an invoice to the sum of £2,174 and it is for........providing invoices. Hello Internal Auditors! Wakey wakey!

There is a lot more work to be done to achieve anything like real transparency in the Council's activities. One suggestion would be to explain, in detail, how the Tin Dunny has consumed £1.3million of ratepayers money. Publishing the monthly 'sploodgefest' is only the beginning. There is a world of pain out there and I'd love to see who was responsible for the mess.

Till next time, may your God go with you.