The events of the last few weeks in Somerton have definitely been something of an eye-opener and, as the truth slowly leaks out about how Somerton Town Council has been squandering taxpayer's money, its worth asking just how did this situation come about?
In a properly run authority, there are checks and balances to make sure that expenditure is undertaken with accountability and transparency. Most expenditure is undertaken publicly with clear information available as to why any given expenditure might be necessary (or not). Expenditure will be discussed publicly and clear decisions taken and minuted to show that due process was followed and that the taxpayer's funds are being protected. But accountability and transparency have been alien concepts in Somerton Town Council.
Back in August and September of 2008, when the Tin Dunny/Etsome Terrace asset swap was in the air, I presented a list of questions to Roger Calderwood, Somerton Town Council's Clerk. As the Clerk, it is, or should have been, Roger Calderwood's job to make sure that appropriate financial information was available for scrutiny. A question that I posed to Roger was as follows:
(In the last 5 years) On how many occasions has Somerton Town Council sought competitive tenders for works? - No reply.
I also asked him to confirm, with regard to Unit 8 Cary Court, that, any and all expenditure will be subject to competitive tendering. Again, silence.
Another 14 questions, mostly revolving around the Etsome Terrace/8 Cary Court asset swap, failed to elicit any answer from the Town Clerk. Evidently part of the problem was that I was asking too many questions but, quite obviously, one question would have been one too many.
In September of this year I tried a different tack and asked some questions of our then town councillors and a selection of the questions were:
Are you aware of the legislation regulating the activities of Somerton Town Council and its Councillors? (If yes, please specify.)
What aspects of the Council’s activities do you believe should be hidden from public view or enquiry? (Please specify.)
Should Somerton Town Council publish a register of Member’s Interests?
Based upon your own knowledge of Somerton Town Council, should the Council undertake more or less consultation with the Community?
What do you see as the top 3 priorities facing Somerton Town Council today?
Based upon your current knowledge, is Somerton Town Council currently making the best use of the Precept and, if not, how should the use of the Precept change?
Have you seen the current accounts of Somerton Town Council including its assets and liabilities and, if so, what is your view of the Council’s current situation?
These questions were posed to try and establish what, if anything, our then Town Councillors knew about the job of being a Town Councillor or about the running or regulation of a Town Council. Unsurprisingly, only one Town Councillor replied and this questionnaire was cited by some as being offensive. But the response of these (soon to be) ex-Councillors disguised the horrible truth which was that they knew little or nothing about the job and how a Town Council should be run.
But it wasn't until very recently that I started to understand the depth of Somerton's problems. One of our ex-Councillors, Kevin Morgan, placed a comment on the Pickards site where there is an in-depth analysis of the contents of Muck&Brass. Kevin's comment was short but very informative and ended by saying that the outgoing Town Council was, ".......leaving the town precept in a far healthier position".
This is rather akin to a Prime Minister claiming that they were leaving the country in a healthier position because they had raised the basic rate of income tax to 50%. Clearly Kevin didn't understand that the Precept isn't 'free money', it is taxpayer's money and needs to be spent with accountability. If Kevin's view of the Precept was a standard by which to judge his fellow ex-Councillors then its no wonder that Somerton Town Council has ended up saddled with the Tin Dunny.
Upon reflection, its hard to be generous in a situation like this. When I started to ask questions I assumed, quite wrongly it would seem, that the people I was questioning knew the answers. Now it starts to look as if they knew little or nothing and that the ill-temper and obstructiveness that I faced were more about their fear of being found out than it was about their fear of being questioned. So, lets hope that this is the only awful truth that we face. But somehow I don't think that it will be.
Till next time.