An investigation has found four serving Desborough town councillors who were also trustees of a library charity the council has given a large grant to, breached the council’s standards code.
Chair of the town council, Jean Read, along with fellow Independents for Desborough councillors Gil Holmes, Linda Burnham and Steve Draycott will have to apologise for their failure to declare their interests in the charity Desborough Library and Community Hub (DCLH) at the council’s next meeting and admit they breached the code of conduct.
A special dispensation given to the councillors by town clerk Graham Thomson to take part in decisions on library matters has also been cancelled and so from now on these councillors, and any others who have an interest in the library charity, will have to withdraw from the meeting when the library matter is discussed by the town council.
The investigation was commissioned by Kettering Council after a complaint by Desborough resident Kevin O’Brien who was concerned there was a conflict of interest for some councillors who were also trying to save and buy the library in high street. READ THE FINDINGS OF THE CODE OF CONDUCT INVESTIGATION REPORT IN FULL
The library is one of 22 being handed over to community groups by Northamptonshire County Council which has decided it cannot afford to run the places of learning anymore.
An investigation conducted by solicitor Janet Kealey- who was the former deputy monitoring officer at Northamptonshire County Council until this June- found the councillors had breached the code by not declaring a personal interest or a pecuniary interest in the library
She held interviews with all five councillors named by Mr O’Brien plus the town’s clerk.
In her report she writes: “It appears that there has been a failure to recognise the importance of keeping an ‘arm’s length’ between the Council’s business and DLCH business.
“I don’t believe this was deliberate but it is difficult to accept at face value the subject members’ assertions of their ability to act in the best interests of the Council, and not the DLCH, when discussing the library at Council meetings.
“Any truly third party approaching the Council for support and funding of this level would no doubt have been heavily scrutinised and approached with great caution. The subject members all appear to be of the view that robust repayment provisions within any grant to be made to the DLCH demonstrates that they are wearing their councillor’s ‘hat’, and shows that they have separated their roles sufficiently.
“However, it remains the case that the person asking for the money was the same person making the decision whether to give the money.”
The investigator decided that’ through inexperience or lack of guidance, there has been no proper division between the Council’s business and Trust business at council meetings.’
She did rule that the ‘blurring of the relationship’ between the council and the charity was not a ‘deliberate ploy’ but had come about because of the haste in which matters were happening.
On July 25th at an extraordinary meeting the council – whose 12 strong group was made up of seven councillors with a library interest – decided to give a £120,000 grant to help the charity buy the library plus a £30,000 grant to cover running costs for the first year. The remainder of the £270,000 price tag being asked by the county council for the library will be paid by a grant from the Maud Elkington Trust.
The investigation did not look into the decision to hand over the £150,000 as the complaint was made before.
According to the solicitor’s report a number of the councillors had become members of DLCH in July last year but had failed to declare an interest until December.
In his complaint Mr OBrien also made a number of other allegations which were not upheld of had insufficient evidence to decide upon.
The matter is the latest drama at Desborough Town Council. The Independents for Desborough group took control of the council in May last year after the ruling conservative party stood down in the wake of hiking its parish precept by an unprecedented 400 percent.
This summer Cllr Bill MElhinny (who was also found to have breached standards) stood down and Cllr Bill Keys left the Independents for Desborough group.
Cllr Simon Stroud, who is an independent, and highly critcal of the way the council made the library decision, said: “I would like to see the council revisit the July decision with sight of all the available information.
“I think we can get through it but we have to do what we agreed when we were voted in and that is to be open and transparent.”
Mr O’Brien said the town council should ‘reflect and learn’ from the matter.
Desborough town council's clerk Graham Thomson said the matter will be discussed at the council's next meeting on September 19th.
Editor’s note: “An earlier version of this story referred to the remaining cost of the library as £260,000. This figure is actually £270,000 and the article has been amended. The article also referred to the resignation of Bill McElhinney and we have been asked to make clear that this resignation was for personal reasons. A link has also now been added to article to the full standards report.”