April 3 2008




The controversy over the purchase of East Blockhouse Angle by senior National Park officer, Gary Meopham, and his family rumbles on.
The issue, which I understand has come to be known as "Garygate", has been given new life by the publication of a highly critical draft report by the authority's newly established investigation and reputation committee.
Unfortunately, I was unable to attend last Monday's meeting where the draft report was discussed, but it will be interesting to compare the draft (what the members really think) with the final version (what the officers have persuaded them they ought to think).
However, as the draft leaves little doubt as to the members' deep dismay at the way the matter has been handled by chief executive Nic Wheeler, I am not expecting to see any fundamental amendments.
For instance, the members say that: "There is no dispute that instances of Gross Misconduct occurred in a number of spheres, otherwise a final written warning would not have been issued."
And that: "The behaviour of the officer concerned fell far short of the standards that the members of this authority, and the public, have a right to expect."
The committee concludes: "Having carefully considered the entire catalogue of findings, issues and lapses revealed by this in-depth investigation, as well as the external legal advice procured by the Chief Executive, the overwhelming majority still feel that serious transgressions and breaches of the Code of Conduct exhibited by the individual concerned should have warranted dismissal."
As I have pointed out previously, Nic Wheeler and other senior officers were told about Mr Meopham's involvement in the purchase back in September 2006 but chose to do nothing about it.
Indeed, it was not until October 2007, when a row blew up over the diversion of a footpath on the site and a planning application to develop four holiday units was received, that members were alerted to what was going on.
To his credit, once he became aware of the situation, the chairman Cllr Simon Hancock immediately referred the matter to the authority's monitoring officer.
The committee are scathing: "Members are dismayed that no senior staff saw fit to question the behaviour of a senior member of staff operating as a speculative property developer in an organisation whose purpose is to conserve such prominent headland landscapes in the National Park for all to enjoy."
And the buck for all this must stop with the chief executive.
However, the committee stops short of directly expressing its lack of confidence in Mr Wheeler.
Instead it recommends that the chief executive be subject to a six-monthly performance appraisal "until members feel reassured, when it can be revert to a twelve monthly review."
I don't know whether committee members have seen the report of the meeting between Mr Wheeler and team leaders when these issues were also discussed.
If not they should get hold of a copy because it demonstrates a huge gulf between the officers' perception of the problem and their own.
I will return to this issue next week.

Waiving the rules

All members of the county council have received a letter from the monitoring officer explaining the operation of the so-called "Purdah Rules" during elections.
The rules require that nothing is done by the council by way of public pronouncements which might be seen to be favouring one candidate or party over another.
Indeed, as the monitoring officer's letter points out, these statutory rules apply at all times, it is just that they are to be interpreted more strictly in the run up to elections.
So an announcement of a major job creating development, which might be seen as a feather in the cap of the ruling party, should probably be postponed until after the election.
And, as I said a couple of weeks ago (March 18), the taxpayer-funded document that accompanies our council tax bill shouldn't contain overtly political statements by the Leader of the council.
If the Leader of the Independent Political Group wants to persuade people to vote for his party, he should do it under his own steam and not on the back of the council's press department.
And when the council put out a press release in the name of Cllr Bill Hitchins which included a personal attack on another member (me) it was almost certainly breaking the rules.
These rules also apply to the use of council resources for party political purposes.
Unfortunately, as the Independent Political Group acts as the political wing of the Chief Officers Manaagement Board, these distinctions have a tendency to become blurred.
If our new monitoring officer is setting to out to ensure that the rules are strictly observed, as he has already done in respect of the shady dealings of the planning delegation sub committee (Clipped wings), that will be a very welcome development.

Not pleased

Introducing the authority's housing strategy at last week's meeting of full council, Cllr David Simpson went to some lengths to outline the improvements in the service since he took over as Cabinet member for housing two years ago.
According to Cllr Simpson, there had been a dramatic drop in homelessness and the number of people in bed and breakfast had fallen from 160 to one.
I'm sure most members were delighted to hear this good news, though Old Grumpy noticed that the chairman Cllr Bill Roberts, who, as Cllr Simpson's predecessor in the housing job, was, presumably, responsible for the original mess, wore the expression of someone who had just stepped in some dog do.


More than one way . . .


Some weeks ago, I wrote about the county council's empty boast about keeping Cleddau Bridge tolls constant for the last ten years.
As I pointed out, there has been no need to raise charges because the ever increasing volume of traffic ensures a steady flow of extra cash into the council's coffers.
The council's own website, which informs us: "The bridge was eventually opened to traffic in 1975. In the first year of operation approximately 885,900 vehicles used the bridge. By year ending March 2006 this number increased to 3,979,853". would seem to bear out my analysis.

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