Transparency vs secrecy row: Are York councillors in danger of becoming ‘glove puppets’?

Cllr Mark Warters. Photograph: City of York Council / YouTube
21 Sep 2017 @ 7.23 pm
| News, Politics

York’s council leader has insisted he wants to be ‘as transparent as possible’ – but he is still keeping a report into the authority’s conduct under wraps.

That decision left councillors looking like ‘the glove puppets of the senior officers riding the local authority gravy train’, according to a fierce critic of the decision.

We reported on Wednesday growing concerns about City of York Council’s culture of secrecy after it emerged a report into the conduct of council officers and councillors was not being published.

The Local Government Authority report investigated the behaviour at a stormy meeting of York’s audit and governance committee in February.

Despite a previous pledge to publish in full, council leader David Carr has kept the draft report private – not even allowing councillors to see it in private session.

No prejudice

City of York Council leader Cllr David Carr. Photograph: York Conservatives

Cllr Carr says he will now seek advice “on the implications of the report and the form in which the contents of the report can be released”.

Because the LGA was reporting on whether officers or councillors at the meeting breached their respective codes of conduct, he said

the council must take extreme care to ensure it does not prejudice any potential investigation.

That may require a necessary level of confidentiality despite my desire that within City of York Council, we all, officers and politicians alike, should be as transparent as possible in all that we do.

And he pledged: “I will seek to make this ongoing process as transparent as possible, consistent with the protection of both officers and members’ rights to a fair hearing.”

‘Riding the gravy train’

At the February meeting under investigation, councillors voted to make public an earlier report that was very critical of council officers.

This report revealed serious failings in the council’s procurement processes, which saw a consultant paid nearly £175,000 with virtually no paperwork or monitoring.

Officers at the meeting challenged councillors to explain the way they voted, which was “unprecedented” according to one senior member.

At the latest A&G committee on Wednesday night, independent Cllr Mark Warters said the draft LGA report into the affair has been with the council for over three weeks.

“And according to the people who really run the council – the senior officers – this report, even after it has been sanitised between the council’s HR department and the LGA, is to remain secret.

“Are you as a committee willing to condone this state of affairs?”

He said the committee should insist on seeing the “full, unsanitised draft report”.

Otherwise it would confirm the scenario “that elected members are merely the glove puppets of the senior officers riding the local authority gravy train”.

Reduces trust

City of York Council’s West Offices. Photograph: Richard McDougall

York resident and local government expert Gwen Swinburn told the committee there were no grounds for keeping the report from councillors.

“Don’t accept any excuse,” Ms Swinburn said.

“Any delay further serves to inflame an already incendiary situation and reduces further the trust and confidence in those very officers upon whom we and you should most rely.”

Cllr Lars Kramm asked why committee members were not seeing a copy of the LGA’s draft report. He was told the report was with the council leader.

“It will be for the leader to then determine whether all or any of that report is made public,” said Ian Floyd, director of customer and corporate services.

Apart from Cllr Carr and the interim head of HR at the council, “no one else has seen the report. I haven’t seen it, the monitoring officer hasn’t seen it.”

Call for openness

Cllr Steward reiterated his call made in YorkMix for the report to be seen first by the A&G committee in private session, then published fully once any disciplinary issues it raised had been dealt with.

Chair of the committee Cllr Fiona Derbyshire said “there is a compulsion here to give something back publicly”.

Cllr Ian Cuthbertson pointed out that the original meeting was seven months ago.

He asked whether it would be possible to frame future reports in such a way that they could be delivered and discussed in public sooner.

“I’m really concerned that we deal with things openly and transparently.”