On the evening of 13th July 2010, Mrs Sherry Briggs, in her self-appointed capacity as Chairperson of the self-styled 'Somerton Community Association', read out a statement with regard to questions I have asked, and will continue to ask, about the 'Somerton Community Association'.
For clarity, my issue with the 'Somerton Community Association' (SCA) is not specifically with the funds that it has obtained, neither is it with some of the donations that the SCA has made. My issue is with the organisation of the SCA, the manner in which it is regulated, the authority with which it obtains funds (including donations and public funds) and with the process by which funds have been distributed. Of particular interest are the donations, totalling some £50,000, that the SCA made to Somerton Town Council and which were spent on the Tin Dunny. The issue is made more complicated by the fact that, since a confidential meeting of Somerton Town Council in May of 2005, Mrs Briggs has been a paid employee of Somerton Town Council, acting as 'assistant to the Town Clerk' (Ass.TC). The conflict of interest between Mrs Briggs' role as Chairperson of the 'SCA' and her role as a Town Council employee makes the regulation of the 'SCA' a matter of real concern.
On the information available, the SCA is not a 'community association' but a private club, organised and directed by Mrs Sherry Briggs, the 'Chairperson'. The funds obtained in the name of the community of Somerton are not distributed with the sanction of the community but at the direction of Mrs Sherry Briggs. If the SCA can prove that: its membership is open to the entire community of Somerton; it holds public meetings and elections; it publishes agendas and minutes; it maintains a bank account and publishes yearly and audited accounts; it is registered with the Charities Commission and, importantly, canvases and reflects in its actions the will of the community upon whose name it trades, then I will stand corrected and I will state that correction publicly.
Mrs Briggs and the 'SCA' can resolve this matter simply and quickly by answering the questions that I have presented and the fact that they steadfastly refuses to so do leads to the inevitable conclusion that they have something to hide. £183,000 isn't exactly loose change which makes it even more important that Mrs Briggs and the 'SCA' answer the questions. Afterall, if everything is kosher and above board then the only person who will be eating crow is me.
Mrs Briggs' words are reproduced verbatim and my comments are included within brackets and in bold italics:
"I am actually speaking as the Chairman of the Somerton Community Association. As most of you will probably know for the past 14 years the SCA has fundraised and facilitated projects in Somerton (As you've told us so often, Mrs Chairperson). On his blog and by letter Mr Connolly has been casting doubt on the integrity of our association for some time (With good reason, Mrs Chairperson). Latterly with some blatant untruths (Name them and sue me!). Our committee (Who are who, exactly, Mrs Chairperson?) decided not to reply to his letters as previous experience has found him to be hostile and aggressive (Instances, Mrs Chairperson?) if what he considers the right answers are not given to his loaded questions (OMG, loaded questions! How Terrible!). He labels the SCA a secret society (Instanced by its and your refusal to answer letters of enquiry from a member of the community which it and you purport to represent.) which is rather strange considering we featured in the Somerton news every year (Not quite true, Mrs Chairperson, but no matter.) offering grants to local groups and stalls at Mayfairs Victorian evenings and a number of other fund raising activities. Apart from running the community shop (Closed since 2005 when Mrs Chairperson took a part-time job with Somerton Town Council) in the HalfMoon carpark for seven years where our list of grants was always displayed in the window and thank-you letters were available for inspection (But no yearly and audited accounts, no dates for meetings etc etc etc.). Mr Connolly doesn't seem to berate us for our donations to the Scouts or the first responders playgroup youthclub christmas lights play areas (Quite true, Mrs Chairperson.) or any of the other projects (Untrue, Mrs Chairperson.) to which we have donated £183,000 His interest in our activities only seems to start with this hall (Quite accurate, Mrs Chairperson, and quite appropriate.) which he publicly shows disdain for (A disdain which is not exclusive to myself, Mrs Chairperson.). Why should elderly or disabled users of this hall not benefit from our funding as did the users of the Parish Rooms some years ago (Hiding a £50,000 bale-out behind disabled users is rather disingenuous, apart from representing a serious conflict of interest between yourself, Mrs Chairperson, and your position as a Town Council employee.). Apart from the sources of funding already mentioned and the grants we successfully acquired for Somerton thanks to the generousity of Westcombe Waste (Whose boss, Dean Ruddle, the SCA gerrymandered for in the October election last year.) we've been able to use Landfill Tax Funding which has provided a substantial income to Somerton projects. The SCA was actually intending to wind up its activities a year or so ago as we're all getting older and the SCA takes quite a lot of time and effort but the opportunity of acquiring more funds from Westcombe Waste for the benefit of the town presented itself and we decided that we couldn't just ignore this money so we've continued purely to channel this ...... funding into Somerton projects. Mr Connolly has now written to the Landfill Tax governing body using his usual loaded question tactics (OMG, more loaded questions! How terrible!) to request the suspension of the SCA's access to Landfill Tax funds and that enquiries be made into its status and right to direct Landfill Tax generated funds (Quite rightly given the lack of consultation, accountability, transparency, secrecy etc etc etc.). I would like to inform everybody publicly that the SCA has recently undergone an ENTRUST Compliance Audit which has been signed-off as being completely satisfactory (You say, Mrs Chairperson. Publish the details.). Part of this audit included a visit from two ENTRUST officers who I brought here to show this hall as part of a tour of all the projects around town which have been helped by Landfill Tax funding (Without public consultation, Mrs Chairperson.) and also the place where I worked. I was also in Bristol last week and met with ENTRUST's chief compliance officer who has a background in audit and local government and also a senior representative of HM Revenue & Customs who administer the Landfill Tax. Both are well aware of the problems we are facing. It was quite clear from my conversations with these two gentlemen (Names please, Mrs Chairperson.) that, sadly, Somerton is not alone in that there is a growing breed of person who is prepared to abuse the liberties and opportunities of the Freedom of Information Act and the Internet to cause trouble (By asking leading questions, one assumes.). Many many residents help the SCA to achieve what they have over the years and it is a sad thing that people who have worked so hard for the benefit of their community are being treated like this (Not quite true Mrs Chairperson. The questions are directed at yourself and the 'SCA' in order to establish the authority with which you and the 'SCA' hand out public money in the name of the 'Community of Somerton'). Thank you for your time."
In conclusion, the behaviour of Mrs Briggs and the 'SCA' is simply a reflection of the attitudes and behaviour of the old Somerton Town Council where secrecy and denial was a default position. What do Mrs Briggs and the 'SCA' have to fear from transparency? Only they know.
Till next time, I'm Niall Connolly