15 June 2009

The Stasi Charge

As you may know from previous entries, Muck&Brass is trying to gain access to Public Documents held by Somerton Town Council. Somerton Town Council, for their part, are doing their best to obstruct those enquiries. This obstruction was formalised at last weeks Council Meeting when, under Item 14 (Freedom of Information Act) the Town Clerk read out what seemed to be a badly prepared statement. This waffled on with a rehash of the Town Council's earlier letter to your scribe (see the blog dated 22nd May) and was quite baffling. So much so that Muck&Brass visited the Town Council Offices on Wed 10th June to seek clarification and the following is the situation as explained by the Town Clerk:

1. Having published the Model Publication scheme in January of 2009, Somerton Town Council has introduced a charging process for access to documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

2. A Search Fee of £25 per hour will be charged (if required).

3. Photocopies of documents will be charged at 5p per black&white A4 copy.

However, at last week's meeting, Somerton Town Council introduced an additional charge which is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act and not mentioned in their published 'Model Publication Scheme' dated 16th December 2008. This additional charge is Somerton Town Council's 'Stasi Charge' or 'Guarding Charge'. This will add £25 per hour for each and every hour that a member of the public looks at documents. Muck&Brass pressed the Town Clerk to explain the basis for this 'Stasi Charge' and the Town Clerk was unable to either explain or justify the charge or explain where it was supported by the Freedom of Information Act.

So, whilst Cllr Keenan states, within the Council Meeting, that no-one will be denied access to documents, the fact is that Somerton Town Council are, at the same time, increasing their charging scale and it can only be assumed that the intention is to obstruct or deny enquiries.

There is of course, one other possible explanation. Muck&Brass has already found the records of Somerton Town Council quite impenetrable. Records are not kept in the way that one might expect and it is quite possible that the Town Clerk ( £30k per annum plus pension ) isn't very good at filing. Its quite possible that the records are in such a mess that the Town Council has to spend hours and hours locating documents. That being the case, is it fair to try and charge members of the public for the short-comings of Council staff?

Either way, it would seem that the Town Council is in a bit of a mess. Maybe members of the public could help them out by making more 'Freedom of Information' requests. That might force them to put their house in order.

Till next time.