26 June 2009

'Conflict of interest'

What is a 'conflict of interest'? Think about it this way - you work for a large company. You are responsible for purchasing goods or services for that company. Your brother-in-law owns or works for a company which supplies goods or services that your company could purchase. You seek tenders for a purchase and you ask your brother-in-law to quote. At that point you occasion a 'conflict of interest' because you have a relationship with a supplier which could influence your decision making process.

(Wikipedia has a very good section about 'conflict of interest' which, whilst not definitive, is extensive and a good guide to the issue.)

How does this relate to Somerton Town Council? It relates to Somerton Town Council, and all other similar organisations, where there can be a 'conflict of interest' between, on the one hand, the activities of a councillor or elected official in their public activities and, on the other, the activities of a councillor or elected official in their private or professional lives.

In Somerton, possible 'conflict of interest', could be represented by Cllr. Tony Canvin's position, privately, as a well established local developer/contractor, and his public position as a local and district councillor. Now, before the lawyers start sharpening their pencils, it must be understood that the fact or possibility of a 'conflict of interest' does not automatically mean or infer wrongdoing. A 'conflict of interest' can exist without wrongdoing. However, public bodies generally seek to avoid 'conflicts of interest' because they call into question the independence of decisions which usually have an impact of public finance.

This blog started as a result of statements made by Cllr. Paddy Keenan at a 'Village Hall' meeting held on 27th November 2006. At that meeting, and in response to questions from the audience, Cllr. Keenan stated that a) the budget for the then proposed 'Village Hall' would be handled by Cllr. Canvin and b) there would be no competitive tendering. These statements were explicit. The position described by Cllr. Keenan would, at the very least, infer possible 'conflicts of interest'.

However, the 'Village Hall' as proposed at that meeting, never came to pass and, in 2008, Somerton Town Council embarked on a course of action where there many instances where possible 'conflicts of interest' exist and should be investigated.

Somerton Town Council decided to sell Etsome Terrace to Edgar Homes in 2008. The Town Council did not seek a mandate from the community for this course of action.

At the same time, Edgar Builders (who share the same directors as Edgar Homes) sold Unit 8, Cary Court to Somerton Town Council. Somerton Town Council did not seek a mandate from the community for this course of action.

The directors of Edgar Builders (and therefore of Edgar Homes) are known to Cllr. Canvin, Cllr. Canvin having sold the site at Unit 8, Cary Court to them in 2004 for £105,000.

Cllr. Canvin was also directly involved with the 'Heads of Terms' negotiations with Edgar Homes which defined the terms of the sale of the Etsome Terrace site to Edgar Homes.

Since the purchase of Unit 8 Cary Court, much, if not all of Somerton Town Council's expenditure on the building has been undertaken by Cllr. Canvin.

Now, the possible 'conflicts of interest' presented by this muddle do not infer or imply any wrongdoing but they do undoubtedly raise concerns. Somerton Town Council could have addressed these issues had it put in place strict controls, checks and balances but it did not do so. As a result of that failure to act, it is fair to propose that Somerton Town Council can be held directly responsible for bringing both itself and Cllr. Canvin into disrepute in these matters.

Seeking clarity in this matter, the following is a letter which was sent to Somerton Town Council on 8th August 2008. Points 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 are specifically relevant.

Somerton Town Council failed to answer any aspect of these enquiries and it is fair to ask why? Had Somerton Town Council provided satisfactory answers to these questions, then the taxpayer might have been able to have confidence in the impartiality of the decisions which surrounded the Etsome Terrace/Tin Dunny transaction. The fact that the Town Council, far from providing satisfactory answers, failed to offer any response whatsoever must raise very real concerns about the integrity of the Town Council's financial activities.

Till next time, may your God go with you.