11 February 2010

What is 'public interest'?

The letter from Porter Dodson, on behalf of Mr A H Canvin, raises interesting issues with regard to what may and what may not be reasonably discussed in public.

In the first blog entry dated 28th November 2006 I described a meeting which reported progress on the Community Hall project. What caught my attention was a statement by Cllr H E Keenan regarding funding and expenditure relating to the 'Community Hall'. Quoting from that original blog entry:

"Another point which was mentioned was how the building might be built or, more accurately, how the materials and labour might be purchased. It was proposed to the meeting that Tony Canvin, the well known builder and local and district councillor, would use his 'buying power' to negotiate the best deals. It was proposed that there would be no tendering evidently because tendering is a tedious process which doesn't offer any benefit.

Now this last point is interesting. If there isn't a tender document, how will the Town ever know what its getting for the money? If there isn't a tender document, how will the money be accounted for? If there isn't a tender document, how will the Town know what the specification should have been? The answer is that without a tender document the Town will never know what it paid for and there will be precious little accountability."

The conduct of this meeting, and the many meetings that I attended subsequently, raised serious doubts in my own mind with regard to the way in which Somerton Town Council was being administered and regulated. The possibility of conflict raised by (ex)Cllr Keenan and with regard to (ex)Cllr Canvin, continued to raise questions with regard to decisions enacted by the Town Council.

Enquiries into these matters are, in my view, enquiries into matters of 'public interest' as they involve the expenditure of public money, taxpayer's money, money which was provided to Somerton Town Council for the Community of Somerton. These enquiries were brought to a sharp focus by the asset swap where Somerton Town Council exchanged land at Etsome Terrace for Unit 8 Cary Court. This transaction posed possible conflicts between Mr A H Canvin's position as a local landowner/property developer/contractor and his position as a Local Councillor.

The letter I have received from Porter Dodson is more a function of the conflict between, on the one hand, Mr Canvin's position as both an influential local businessman and, on the other, his positions as a District and (ex)Local Councillor than it is a function of my comments upon that conflict. It is regrettable that, rather than clarifying the conflicts between these positions, he clearly wishes to suppress any and all debate or comment. Equally regrettable is the fact that neither he, nor Somerton Town Council (pre 27th October 2009) did anything to address those conflicts.

In conclusion, I am reminded of the legal opinion which (ex)Cllr Canvin was personally involved in, with regard to Somerton Town Council's response to my Freedom of Information enquiries. In response to (ex)Cllr Canvin's briefing, the legal opinion states:

"I have not read any of Mr Connolly's correspondence on the broad subject but I imagine that he will say throughout all this that it is a free country and he has rights - of access to information, free speech, etc. In principle, he does but we will have to look at the ways in which that freedom can be limited or denied."

Till next time, I am Niall Connolly