21 January 2012

The facts Jack, just the facts (if you have any)...........


Back in November of 2011, the Western Gazette carried a piece about a complaint which had been lodged with South Somerset District Council (SSDC) against the current Chair of Somerton Town Council. The Somerton rumour mill didn't take long to telegraph the suggestion that I am somehow implicated in the complaint and, as a consequence, I made an enquiry of SSDC with regard to any and all references to myself. SSDC's response has been predictable in one regard and curious in another.

The complaint itself is summarised thus: That Cllr Fraser-Hopewell has brought his office and Somerton Town Council into disrepute by (i) providing information to a third party for reasons not connected to the functions of the Town Council, (ii) misleading other councillors in relation to an external investigation, (iii) incurring expenditure to further personal interests rather than for the purposes of the function of the town council (iv) pursuing a vendetta against the previous town councillors.

SSDC have now informed me that they will release to me such information that relates to myself in the following terms: 

In terms of the detail of their complaint where you are mentioned, I will check with the investigator whether or not release of some of the detail of the complaint that relates to you would adversely impact upon his investigation. 

However, as expected, SSDC will seek to redact the identity of the complainant(s) but it is the reason for this non-disclosure that I find most interesting and is as follows: 

The council's position is that disclosure would be unfair as the information was obtained in relation to a specific FOI request and complaint under the code of conduct and not for wider public disclosure.  These are sensitive matters due on-going issues relating to Somerton and the activities of past and present members and supporters of the Town Council.  Due to the history of the troubles in Somerton we have concluded there would be a general expectation of privacy due to the sensitive nature of the information and the likelihood that disclosure would cause the members of public concerned distress and/or damage to their reputation or standing.  There is also the likelihood that they would feature on and be subject to ridicule through your "muck and brass" blog .  Disclosure under the Act means disclosure to the world at large and would put this information into the public domain; in the council's opinion this would be both unfair and an unwarranted intrusion of privacy.

What SSDC seem to be saying here is that public information is only safe in the hands of those who will not make it public and someone like myself, who might make public information public, must be denied access to such public information. It is also clear that, whilst serious allegations have been made, SSDC are seeking to proceed with what is, in effect, a secret investigation. This raises the question of the credibility of the allegations themselves: what test was applied to the allegations before  the decision to investigate was taken?

It is also worth comparing this complaint(s) to my own objection to the accounts of Somerton Town Council for fiscal 2008/9. In lodging that objection I did so under my own name and I made public the fact of the objection. I also provided such documentary evidence as had not been denied to me (in breach of the FoI Act) by the actions of the then Somerton Town Council. I did not seek neither did I expect anonymity. But it would seem that, in the case of the complaint(s) against the current Chair of the Council, anyone can say anything and not make themselves subject to scrutiny.

In my own view, this complaint(s) is just a part of the ongoing vendetta being maintained by Somerton's Old Guard and their supporters against anyone who, in their eyes, criticised the Keenan/Canvin administration. It is reasonable to ask if the 'evidence' supporting the complaint(s) properly and fairly tested and, if it was not, have SSDC and its Assessment Committee not become agents of that vendetta?  

Obviously, the public disclosure of the complaint(s) and the investigation, particularly the terms of the allegations, must itself be seen to be damaging to the reputations of the subject(s) of the investigation. SSDC has a duty of care, not only to treat complaints fairly but to extend that fairness to those complained about. In my own case, I would like to see the 'evidence' where the complaint(s) refer or relate to myself - in a democracy the accused has a right to see the 'evidence' and also to refute it. 

Whatever the case, I hope that the complaint(s) are based upon substantive fact and that SSDC's Assessment Committee tested the 'evidence' before instigating the investigation. Any failure to so do will, quite reasonably, raise suggestions of bias and attract a charge of bringing their office and their Council into disrepute.

Till next complaint, I'm Niall Connolly