Several weeks ago I submitted a freedom of information (FOI) request to Thanet Council. I asked for copies of any notes or minutes related to the 5 meetings which took place between the O’Regan Group and the Council about its proposed concrete block and waste wood processing operations at the Port of Ramsgate. I was told I couldn’t have these documents as they were commercially confidential. I appealed against this decision and won,but I still didn’t get the documents!
According to the reviewing officer the council was wrong to have ruled that the minutes andnotes were confidential because no notes or minutes were taken in the first place! I was utterly astonished! It’s simply inconceivable that any organisation, other than the most disreputable dodgy cowboy outfit, would hold 5 meetings with a potential business partner and not take any notes or minutes. No wonder Thanet Council has been described as dysfunctional. But it get’s worse! The failure to take notes and minutes was a flagrant breach of Thanet Council’s own rules!
Following my exposure of the TransEuropa Ferries secret £3.4 million debt scandal in 2013 the District Auditor launched an investigation. His February 2014 report made it clear that he was less than impressed by the Councils incompetent record keeping of its meetings with the failing ferry company. He recommended that the Council should “keep contemporaneous notes of key discussions with commercial partners”. Thanet Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Panel also investigated the TransEuropa Ferries secret £3.4 million debt scandal and came to similar conclusions about taking notes of meetings with commercial third parties. The Council’s Governance and Audit Committee; its Cabinet; and the full Council all unanimously endorsed the recommendations of the Auditor and the Overview and Scrutiny Panel, especially those related to the need to keep notes and minutes of meetings with external businesses.
But just 4 months after the council adopted these extremely important recommendations they were totally ignored by council managers who should have known better. Instead of following Council policy and delegating a member of staff to take notes of the meetings with the O’Regan Group it now appears that at the 5 meetings which took place in 2014 managers failed to exercise their responsibility to ensure that this was done. If true, this is gross misconduct and those responsible should face a disciplinary investigation. I have now submitted a formal complaint to the Council Monitoring Officer which I copy below. I have redacted the names of the officers concerned.
This serious abuse of process is the latest in a long history of incompetence and maladministration at the council which contributed toward the TransEuropa Ferries secret £3.4million debt scandal, the Pleasurama debacle, the flawed Local Plan consultation process, and what appears to be a disaster in the making with the Dreamland project. The more I think about Thanet Council’s serial cock-ups; the employment of an army of “interim” managers with no loyalty to the area; the incessant reports of bullying of junior staff; and Labour’s pathetic political management of this shambolic mess, the more I am forced to agree that Thanet Council is a local authority in meltdown which is no longer fit for purpose.
Dear Mr Boyle
I am writing to you to submit a formal complaint about a most serious lack of record keeping by the Council. My complaint relates to a FOI request I submitted several weeks ago requesting copies of notes and minutes taken at the 5 meetings held between the Council, the O’Regan Group and its agents last year. You had originally advised me that any such notes/ minutes would be commercially confidential and that I would not be able to have copies. I submitted a request for an internal review and heard back from Ms. 2 days ago. She informed me that Mr. the had informed her that no notes/ minutes had been taken at any of the 5 meetings because they were “informal”. I was astonished and extremely concerned by this reply. It is my view that all meetings with prospective business partners should be properly minuted so that there is no scope for misunderstanding at a later date and in order to ensure that the Council’s business dealings are transparent and open to scrutiny.
To have had 5 meetings within a relative short time frame suggests to me that these meetings were not informal. The fact that O’Regan also submitted pre-planning documentation to the Council whilst meetings with the Council were still taking place also indicates that these meetings were in fact formal and had moved on to the stage when business negotiations were taking place. Furthermore, the presence of ex-council employees Mr Doug Brown and Mr Brian White at these meetings should, in my opinion, have required detailed notes of the meetings to have been taken whether they were informal or not. Taking such notes would have ensured that any allegations of impropriety, exploiting past relationships with former colleagues for commercial gain etc could be demonstrated to be entirely false Failure to have taken notes will serve to fuel speculation about what happened at the meetings which may damage the reputation of the council. This was in my opinion a very serious failure by those officers involved in the meetings.
As you are aware my complaints about how the Council mis-managed the TransEuropa Ferries £3.4million secret debt scandal led to an investigation by the District Auditor. Amongst other things, the Auditor expressed his concern about the extremely poor record keeping by the Council. So concerned was he about this matter that he recommended to the Council “the need to keep contemporaneous notes of key discussions with commercial partners”.
The Overview and Scrutiny Panel who conducted its own separate investigation into the TransEuropa Ferries £3.4million secret debt scandal was also worried by the Council’s culture of not recording meetings with external businesses It noted that “Members acknowledged that some lessons had been learnt from this incident; particularly the need for efficient record keeping of engagement with third parties and within Council when transacting important Council business (including commercial transactions)”.
The Governance and Audit Committee noted that the “district auditor has recommended that contemporaneous notes of key discussions with commercial partners and between the senior management team and members of the executive are kept. The Council agrees with this and formal notes are now being taken at key meetings”.
If it is true that no notes or minutes of the 5 meetings between the O’Regan Group, its agents and the Council were taken, then officers have clearly ignored the advice of the District Auditor; the wishes the Overview and Scrutiny Panel; the Governance and Audit Committee and Council itself who also endorsed the Auditor’s recommendations . This is an extremely serious situation which merits a thorough investigation by the Monitoring Officer .
I look forward to hearing from you on this matter.
Cllr Ian Driver