The decision to set up a working party to investigate the council’s role in the troubled Dreamland affair was taken by TDCs Overview & Scrutiny Panel on 13 December 2016 following the publication of a highly critical report produced by the East Kent Internal Audit Partnership. Some of the councillors present at the meeting have told me that Chief Executive Homer was “strongly opposed” to setting up an investigation into Dreamland.
These claims appear to be supported by the minutes of the meeting which report Chief Executive Homer as saying “what is it that Members wanted to review which has not been covered by the report before the panel” and warning that “a scrutiny review would have resource implications for the organisation”. Despite her apparent scepticism, Homer has nevertheless become the working group’s lead officer.
Working groups and investigatory panels sometimes have to deal with less than enthusiastic, or hostile, officers supporting their work. However I’m not suggesting that Chief Executive Homer falls into either category and I’m certain, like any other officer attached to this investigation, she will adhere to TDCs Officer Code of Conduct when carrying out her duties. I’m also confident that councillors on the working group will firmly assert their authority in securing the information they need to conduct a thorough investigation. I will also do my bit and let working group members know about the issues which appear to be have been left out of East Kent Internal Audit’s report into Dreamland.
But it’s not alleged lack of enthusiasm that’s caused me to call for Chief Executive Homer to be removed from her lead officer role on the Dreamland working group, but what I believe to be a significant conflict of interest which may give rise to, or create the impression of, bias and lack of objectivity which may possibly hamper the working group. I make this claim because Chief Executive Homer is responsible for overseeing TDCs management of the Dreamland project and has been directly involved in taking many of the key Dreamland decisions which will be investigated by the working group. This is supported by numerous Freedom of Information request submitted to the council about Dreamland which identify Homer as TDCs central figure in relation to Dreamland.
Accepting her central role, then many of the criticisms and concerns expressed in the East Kent Internal Audit investigation into Dreamland, and criticisms and allegations made elsewhere, are likely to relate to Homer’s actions, decisions and stewardship of this £20million project. It would therefore be highly inappropriate of her to play any role whatsoever (apart from the role of witness) in managing, guiding, advising and supporting a working group which is extremely likely to be investigating her actions. To do so would be breach the fundamental common law principle that no one should judge their own case and would create the damaging public perception that the investigation might not be wholly impartial and might even be a cover up.
TDC’s Officer Code of Conduct requires Chief Executive Homer and all other TDC staff “to provide appropriate advice to other employees and members with impartiality”. TDCs Protocol on Member/ Officer Relations says that “officers have a contractual and legal duty to be impartial” and that they “must not allow their professional judgment and advice to be influenced by their personal view”. The Protocol also says that “officers appearing before the Overview and Scrutiny Panel may often be those who have advised the Cabinet or another part of the council on the matter under investigation. In these circumstances an officer may have a conflict of interest. Both members and officers need to consider the severity of the conflict”. All of these requirements suggest to me that although Chief Executive Homer is a diligent, hardworking officer, Thanet Council must nevertheless review her role as the lead officer of the Dreamland Working Group and, in my opinion, remove her from this role, in order to eliminate any suspicion or accusations of a cover-up.
TDCs Constitution also gives Chief Executive Homer responsibility for “establishing a framework for management direction, style and standards”; for ensuring the maintenance “of a climate in which mutual trust and respect (between officers and councillors) can thrive” and for adjudicating in the resolution of the conflicts of interests of both officers and elected councillors. Not that I am suggesting anything untoward on the part of Chief Executive Homer, but surely by placing oneself in position which some people perceive to be conflicted (even if this is not the case) trust in her capability to set standards, develop trust and respect and make decisions about other people’s conflicts of interest could be severely damaged.
This post is not accusatory or critical of Thanet Council’s Chief Executive. It’s all about ensuring that the forthcoming investigation into the £20million Dreamland scandal is managed in an open, honest and non-biased way and is seen by the public to be above board. I believe that to allow TDCs Chief Executive Homer to be involved in any way in the management of this process is a big mistake and, for the reasons I have explained, highly inappropriate.She must be therefore be asked to stand aside and the person doing the asking has got to be the Leader of the Council, Chris Wells.