February 19 2008

 

Whitewash

Monday's meeting of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority (PCNPA); called "To consider a staffing matter" [Head of Estates Gary Meopham's role in the East Blockhouse land deal (Inside track)], got off to a bright start when members struck a blow for open accountable democracy by voting unanimously against the exclusion of the public and press.
Not that they had much choice because holding the meeting in secret would have done nothing to repair what chief executive Nic Wheeler described as the "reputational damage" PCNPA has already suffered from what one national park member tells me is now known as Garygate at Park HQ.
Not that voting to allow the press to remain meant very much because nobody from the Fourth Estate had bothered to show up.
Too busy hunting down a front page story about some "brave" soul who was offering to have his head shaved for charity, I wouldn't be surprised.
However, Cllr Kate Becton and Old Grumpy were on parade, so readers of this website, if not those of Wales'; biggest selling weekly snoozepaper, will be able to get a flavour of what went on.
Firstly, it soon became obvious that the meeting was nothing more than a bit of window dressing because Mr Wheeler, acting under powers delegated to him by the members, had already decided that a a "final warning" was the appropriate punishment.
To cover his backside he had called in Cardiff lawyers Eversheds to give their "independent" opinion on his actions.
Surprise, surprise, Eversheds took the view that any harsher punishment i.e sacking, would be likely to be overturned if Mr Meopham appealed to an employment tribunal.
At that point, members, but not members of the public, were handed a copy of Evershed's opinion and the meeting was adjourned for twenty minutes to give them time to read it.
Cllr Michael Williams protested that the document should have been available four days prior to the meeting as required by statute, and Tim Giles proposed that, as the meeting was open to the public, they, too, should have a copy.
Initially, this was countered with the "legal privilege" argument.
However, as I have pointed out previously, when this argument has been used to justify secrecy, this is entirely spurious because legal privilege, or solicitor/client confidentiality, as it more properly known, only binds the solicitor.
The client, in this case PCNPA, is perfectly free to publish the advice if it so wishes.
The document having been studied, the members reconvened and it soon became clear they were not impressed.
The word "whitewash" was used more than once and there was general feeling that the authority should have sacked Mr Meopham and taken its chances with any subsequent industrial tribunal.
Countering these allegations of a whitewash Mr Anthony Rees of Eversheds said there were two main arguments that Mr Meopham could deploy at an industrial tribunal: the conflict of evidence between QinetiQ (Q) and Mr Meopham and the fact that he had worked satisfactorily for the authority for more than a year since his involvement with the site first became known.
The conflict of evidence concerns events in early May 2006.
What is not disputed is that PCNPA's asset management group, of which Mr Meopham was a member, made the decision not to purchase the site on 4 May and on the 8th May Mr Meopham's brother Mark wrote to Q offering £200,000 for the land and buildings.
According to Q's estates officer, he received a telephone call from Gary Meopham's brother Mark sometime between 1-4 May with an offer of £165,000.
As the asking price to PCNPA was £250,000-£300,000, Q's estates officer told Mark Meopham (MM) that this offer was too low to merit consideration.
On the 5th May he received another call from MM offering £200,000 and he asked him to put the offer in writing so that he could present it to his superiors.
This MM did in a letter dated 8 May.
Q's estates officer corroborated his version of events with a memo to his boss dated 10 May.
The Meophams say all the above conversations took place on 8 May.
And as the Monitoring Officer told Monday's meeting he felt it would be "unsafe" to prefer one version over the other.
However, that didn't convince Christine Gwyther who pointed out that conflicts of evidence were commonplace in legal cases and one way to resolve them was to consider who "had something to gain by not telling the truth".
And Tim Giles said that, even if the Meophams' evidence was true, it defied belief that MM had telephoned with an offer so soon after the decision not to purchase without some prior discussion with his brother Gary.
"Are we supposed to believe that Mr Meopham woke up the day after the asset management group's meeting and said to himself: 'I wouldn't mind buying that site myself'?
And Richard Howells was even more scathing.
"Many people will consider this to be a whitewash" he said.
"How did his brother become aware that the site was on the market? he asked.
Are we so naive as to believe that they made an offer after just 48 hours discussion? Come off it!"
He said there was a lingering suspicion in the public mind that the authority's decision not to purchase was coloured by Mr Meopham's own interest in the site.
"Mr Meopham has destroyed the reputation of this authority", he said.
"There is not a member sitting round this table who wouldn't have been willing to test this at an employment tribunal." he concluded.
Cllr Steve Watkins disagreed.
"To call it a whitewash was not fair on the officer" he said.
"This person has been exonerated and to call it a whitewash is to suggest he is guilty as hell."
As Mr Howells was quick to point out, having final written warning fell some way short of exoneration.
This was not Cllr Watkins' only contribution.
Earlier he had claimed that, as Mr Meopham hadn't taken the decision not to purchase the site off his own bat [the decision was taken by the asset management group of which, as head of asset management, he was the leading member] he was "Guilty only of using insider information for his own benefit, but not to the detriment of the authority".
Only?
It is not reassuring to learn that Cllr Watkins, who is a JP, sets the bar so low when it comes to standards in public life.
Though, given that he is a leading member of that sleazy outfit the Independent Political Group, hardly surprising.
But it was Evershed's second point: that the Mr Meopham has been happily working for the authority for more than a year since his involvement with the East Blockhouse site became known, that is most interesting.
This takes us back to September 2006 when, apparently, Mr Meopham told senior management, including, presumably Nic Wheeler,, of his interest in the site.
Surely, it is no coincidence that this information was imparted after the sale had been completed rather than back in May 2006 when the offer was made and accepted.
It was more than a year later that members got wind of this and the chairman called in the Monitoring Officer.
That would seem to put Mr Wheeler in a rather difficult position because it would look rather strange if what appears to have been met with a shrug of his shoulders in September 2006 was to suddenly become a sacking offence in February 2008.


I have selected the following quotes to give an idea of the level of anger felt by the members.

Cllr Tony Brinsden, after being told by the chairmen that disciplinary action was the chief executive's prerogative:"This meeting is closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. The chief executive has made his decision and we have no recourse.
Cllr Michael Williams: "So, if we are not happy with his decision our only recourse is to express no confidence in the Chief Executive."
Nic Wheeler: "The advice I received pointed me in the direction of a final warning. I considered dismissal too risky if the matter eventually went to a tribunal."
Cllr Sue Perkins: "How are we supposed to work with him [Gary Meopham] in future. My confidence and that of the public has been lost?"
Cllr Tony Brinsden: "How can he now be trusted by his fellow officers and members of the public?"
Cllr Steve Watkins: These are personal opinions not based on evidence."
Cllr Bill Roberts: "Members of the public are horrified at what has happened and fancy legal arguments won't convince them otherwise.
Nic Wheeler: "Officer A [Gary Meopham] said consistently, during three-and-a-half hours of questioning, that he had taken no interest in the property prior to the asset management group's decision not to purchase.
Anthony Rees [Eversheds] : "I couldn't say for definite that Officer A had advised his brother prior to the decision being taken."
Christine Gwyther: "A final warning is serious but not as serious as the action we should have taken. We've not been as robust as we should have been.
Tim Giles: "Sorry, Mr Rees [Eversheds] but what you say just doesn't stand up."

By the way, planning consent has now been granted to convert the buildings on the site to four holiday units.
£235,000 for 50 acres and four plots seems like a bit of a steal.
I will return to the planning issues next week.

Janus-faced?

 

Old Grumpy is told that Cllr Peter Stock is busy recruiting candidates for the forthcoming local elections.
Nothing strange about that except that rumour has it that he is acting for both the Conservative Party, of which is a member, and the Independent Political Group (Party?) of which he is also a member.
What will be really interesting is that, when the ballot papers are finally published, we will find out to whose colours he has recruited himself.

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