A monumental cock-up!   Melbourn in Cambridgeshire

There is an  extremely worrying situation for the new Melbourn Parish Council. It was clear on Monday that the former chairman of the council, presided over a culture of spend and more spend with little care or thought to the future.

The first full council meeting of this new council was interesting if not a little long. Almost three and a half hours of playing catch up, dealing with problems left behind by the previous administration and putting the new council in order. However, what was clear is that the new council have a lot on their plate, but very little money to work with – the cupboard is almost empty!

So where has all this money gone?

Just one of the many questions and problems this new council face.

There are a lot of financial questions that will need answering publicly and some of these will make some from the previous council uncomfortable. The car park fiasco could end up being the proverbial white-elephant costing the village dearly. Since there is no money in the ‘pot’ another loan could be the only answer, adding another financial burden to the village. This monumental cock-up was just an exercise to massage the ego of some on the previous council.

However, it was good to see the council have already taken some very important steps. Putting an HR team in place is a great move and let’s hope it prevents another sorry situation, as we have seen over the past months. Installing recording equipment for all council meetings has been a long time in coming.

Yes! Some will argue ‘same old faces’, but giving the difficulty the new council face, it’s now time to move on. They have a lot of enthusiastic new councillors who we hope will stick to their election promise of ‘openness and transparency’. But more importantly, we now have a watchful public willing to question what’s going on.
 

So where are we with the grievance document!

The council have received a ‘communication’ from a solicitor representing a former councillor and ‘threatening‘ liable action should the council release the document to the public.

How sad that they should worry about their own reputation, but gave little thought to those that were treated so badly. Threats, intimidation, bullying and yes they did happen, at least some of the accusations were acknowledged to be true – in front of others.

What is hard to understand, is that some in the village are happy to accept what this person has done – ‘it is time to move on, they say’. The remarks ‘you should man up and accept this type of treatment’ and ‘you’re a woman, you should expect this’ are all statements that have been made during this travesty and it is sad to think we still have a mind-set in some that live so far in the past.

So at this stage the grievance document or the main thrust of it, will remain secret. However, it is now in the hands of the ICO who have already indicated the document does come under the Freedom of Information act and should be made available to the public. They have agreed to investigate and it will be ‘they’ who take on the financial burden of any litigation not the village.

As stated one part of the document was released (see below). These are the recommendations given by the grievance panel on how the parish should resolve the issues that arose and how they should deal with problems in the future. Some of the points raised, appear a little disjointed in that the recommendation pertain to points that obviously appear in the main part of the document. Nevertheless, there are some important issues that can be addressed and some have already been put in place.

EXTRACT FROM A GRIEVANCE HEARING:
RECOMMENDATIONS WHICH APPLY TO MELBOURN PARISH COUNCIL

The following recommendations are taken directly from the Grievance Report, and are those which apply to Melbourn Parish Council. Matters relating to the grievance against an individual are not mentioned.

The Panel was composed of three parish councillors suggested by Mr Ian Dewar CEO of CAPALC: Dr D de Lacey (also a South Cambridgeshire District Councillor), Mrs A Dodson and Mr J Gorton. They were advised by an HR Advisor appointed by CAPALC.

  1. Councillors should be aware that the Clerk is not a Secretary to the Council but is the Chief Executive Officer. They are not empowered to ask the Clerk directly to undertake any duties on their behalf. All such requests should be made via a ‘Line Manager’ who can then have some oversight with regard to the Clerk’s work load by helping her to prioritise what needs to be done. The Panel notes that it remains the Clerk’s responsibility to run the Parish affairs, the role of the ‘Line Manager’ will be advisory only.
  2. The Council should immediately appoint such a ‘Line Manger’ for the Parish Clerk. This person should not be the Chairman irrespective of who is elected to that office. This means that in the event of any complaint the Clerk has the ability to refer the matter either to the Chairman or to her ‘Line Manager’ which will better enable the Council to deal with most concerns ‘in house’.
  3. The Panel were told by many of the witnesses both verbally and in writing that there are factional groups within the Council, which causes tensions. The Panel do not feel competent to advise on how this can be addressed because it was not their remit to investigate this issue. It is hoped however that following the May elections the Council will reflect on how they can best address such matters through careful consideration of who they elect to senior positions and whether they need to review the working of the Council to ensure that decisions are taken openly and democratically.
  4. In the light of the above the Panel suggest that, before appointing a ’Line Manager’ for the Clerk, her views should be taken into consideration. This could be done by the Chair of the HR committee.
  5. The exception to Recommendation 1 above is the meeting between the Clerk and the Chairman of the Council regarding discussions over the content of items for the agenda of Council meetings. It should be noted that the agenda is the statutory responsibility of the Clerk and no one on the Council has the right to veto items or insist on the inclusion of any particular topic. Should it be felt that the Clerk has acted unreasonably in the exercise of this duty then three Councillors can convene an extra-ordinary meeting to address any perceived irregularity.
  6. The positions of Chairman of the Parish Council and the Chairman of the Finance and General Purposes Committee should not be held by the same person as this invests too much authority into the hands of one individual. Unless this policy is implemented any issues relating to accountability will be more difficult to address.
  7. At the time of writing this report the Panel were advised that although there had been a meeting to discuss the Clerk’s contract this had still not been finalised. It is a statutory duty for an employee to be given a contract of employment within three months of the commencement of employment. The Council is already in breach of this legal requirement and this should be rectified as a matter of urgency.
  8. At the time of writing the Clerk has no job description. Without this crucial document neither the Council nor the employee has a clear understanding of what role the Clerk should be expected to fulfil. NALC has both a model Contract and Job Description which could be easily adapted to meet the Council’s requirements and Mr I. Dewar of CAPALC would be willing to advise on these issues.
  9. Melbourn Parish Council has one of the largest parish precepts in Cambridgeshire. This reflects the number of activities for which it is responsible. Despite this it has only had a part-time Clerk since January 1st 2016. This person is required to undertake the duties of Parish Clerk, Assistant Clerk, Responsible Financial Officer and Proper Officer. In addition she has been tasked with learning how to operate the payroll system and to transfer last year’s accounts onto the Edge system while converting them from ‘payments and receipts’ to ‘accruals’. These expectations are clearly unrealistic and need to be addressed urgently. The Panel recognises that the Clerk at the time of her appointment requested that the Council should not take on a new Assistant Clerk while she was learning her new role as she did not want the added burden of training the new incumbent along with her other duties. While this sentiment is understandable this has exacerbated the difficulty she has faced. The Panel recommend that the Parish Council take immediately steps to appoint an experienced assistant clerk on a short term basis to alleviate the Clerk’s work load until the appointment of a permanent replacement. This person can then be delegated to undertake specified duties to enable the Clerk to concentrate on her main role. The Panel also recommend that the Clerk be able to buy in all the financial help she needs to complete the requirements for the Year End; and subsequently until she has received the requisite training.
  10. Recommendation withheld until publication of the whole report.
  11. {Witheld}… In particular Staff should be encouraged to report harassment immediately irrespective of the person involved.
  12. {Witheld}…the Council should arrange for employees to be given training to identify unacceptable behaviour and to give them confidence to report any matters of concern.
  13. The Panel recommend that whoever is appointed Chairman at the Council’s Annual Meeting should, as soon as possible after appointment, attend a CAPALC training session for Chairmen.
  14. The Panel recommend that all those appointed to chair a committee of the Council should, as soon as possible after appointment, attend a CAPALC training session (either a general session or one specifically for Chairmen).
  15. Recommendation withheld until publication of the whole report.
  16. It appears that the Clerk finds it difficult to close the office in order to concentrate on matters that require her undivided concentration. It is therefore recommended that the Council allocate a set period of time each week at a specified time when the office will be closed and the telephone switched off to give the Clerk quality time to undertake urgent tasks.
  17. At present the Clerk finds it difficult to work from home because access to the Council’s WiFi is so slow owing to the heavy usage at the Hub. The Panel recommend that the Council explore the possibility of getting another connection exclusively for the Parish Clerk to obviate this problem.

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8 comments

  • I know some cllrs are X fire fighters, and were on the car park committee .

    I know the width of the posts were increase to allow bigger items onto the car park by the committee.

    As for the tar mac / construction, you would have to talk to a structural / civil engineer.

    I’m just amazed the car park shed was built on top of the old pond, and that the soak away was built in the flood plane. Several cllrs to my knowledge had raised this as a concern but were voted down.

    The two sides of collective responsibility kicks in again .

    • If I heard right at the full council meeting, the reasons behind this car park exercise is to find out if the council are liable for any overspend. At that time they had less than a week to put a case together.

      Beyond that and whatever the outcome, there will be a demand for a full report on how the costs rocketed, either that or the rumour mill will kick in yet again and councillors old and ‘not so old’ will find their names in lights.

      We are way beyond the time when a council feels it can do as it pleases – residents will demand answers.

      However, I suspect that residents will have to approach the council for information, letting the village know what they are up to via any medium – website or magazine, has not been the councils strong point.

  • After reading the article in the crow, this week, my immediate thoughts are ‘ what they heck was this all about?’ All that’s seems to have happened is some sort of coup to get rid of the leadership with the core parish councillors involving in those issues still there. All of this is just about within the right side of the line of what is permissible, even though I among many find the episode distasteful and unnecessary. I am at a loss why those councillors involved are still there – whether they be sitting or re-elected. Surly they have had their day and its still to move on with a fresh team, who can sort out the mess they were jointly responsible for without them interfering or perverting the facts, thus rewriting history. Wheres the honour and whats the point in one falling on ones sword, if they can resurrect themselves?

    This is one of the reasons why there was such a low turnout in the election – the candidates themselves. The leaflet did not help and its hard to accept the ‘shared ethos’ explanation. What does that mean? Are they all from the same political party, are they drinking buddies, are the facebook friends, or does it mean something more sinister, ie they are a clique of some sort, who can push through things they want or bury things they don’t like with little or no opposition.

    Lastly I always thought all communication with the parish had to be published – well it was in my days on the parish, so I’m at a loss why so little has been. Maybe the letters are critical of the Parish decisions or individual councillors or the clerk, or all, thus undermining their authority or standing in the community, hence best if they are not made public. However it appears OK to demonise those critical of them or use their influence against them.

    Sorry one last thing, shouldn’t the Carpark be renamed Melbourn Lorry Park, as rumour as it that it it able to handle the weight of a fire-engine – which is why it cost so much and took so much time to construct. It would be nice to know what really happened.

  • I see on the web site of the PC , the parish council is setting up its working parties, one of which is the car park working party, to oversee the investigation into the over spend,

    Members of the public are asked to apply.

    How would it look for openness if chair or vice chair of the original car park committee was on that working party ?

    Go to the PC web site and put your name forward, I have , and will be very interested if Im luck enough to be appointed by the PC to the working party to get to the bottom of why the costs went up so much, where the minutes of the negotiations with contractors are, and why it was not completed in the summer as originally in the proposed contract so as to cause the least inconvenience to the school .

  • Yes collective responsibility is a double edge sword peter, as you know from your many years hard work on the council.

    For others, you might personally vote against something, but unless your quick enough to attract the chairs attention between the time a vote is proposed and its seconded,, its not recorded,

    And once a vote is take, as you know , collective responsibility kicks in and you have to profess the councils views, or get out.

    I took view right up till the end, it was best to stay in. I had stood for election , and decided to stay i to represent the village from the inside.

    Car park committee makes interesting reading, not least as to who was chair and vice chair during its contractual discussion times and who proposed / seconded each of the changes.

    Also interesting reading as to who negotiated the contract and whos name and phone / email is in the docs as the contact person. i don’t think It was the clerk, despite it being raised multiple times in the meetings that the clerk should be included in all communications on behalf of the council.

    I’d love to see the minutes of all the meetings that a selective part of the car park committee had. Were still waiting.

  • Interesting re the car park spend

    You say former Cllr was responsible for the over spend.

    Reality check, the two cllrs that negotiated the contracts and structures and conditions of the contract on the council behalf for I think 18 plus months, and which bound the council, are still on the council.

    • The reality is Andrew, under collective responsibility all councillors are/were to blame.

      The previous council were good at keeping secrets, lead I might add by the former chairman and a few others (the beginnings of ‘the clique’). This small group made a point of hiding information, not just from residents, but in some cases from councillors. For the record, this formed the basis of a complaint which was sent to the parish council in August 2014.

      As such it would be difficult for anyone on the outside to know what was going on within the council, let alone who was responsible for the pending troubles the village now face. So for any outsider, to lay blame on any one individual without clear (published) proof would be folly.

      However, the village are likely to pay a heavy price on what has taken place. And I am certain there are many in the village who would like to see a clear and detailed document that shows how the cost of the car park spiralled from the earliest estimates of around £40,000 in 2011 to well over £400,000 by 2015. Yes I know the £40,000 was never going to do the job, but most would agree it is quite a jump in costs for a car park.

      So! If ALL councillors on this new parish council want the residents to see they are open and transparent then a good start would be to publish a full report that clearly shows how the car park spend got out of hand – from start to finish.

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