A member of West Lindsey District Council has admitted meeting a planning officer who was suspended as part of a fraud investigation. Cllr. Adam Duguid, Conservative (Market Rasen Ward), made the revelation during a tense two-hour council meeting last night, which saw the Tories defeated in their attempts to push ahead with the authority's investigation of the allegations.
Cllr. Duguid, Deputy Leader of the Council, said the meeting was not planned and that he was ‘ambushed’ by the officer – but confirmed he did speak to him.
The staff member was suspended as part of an on-going inquiry into fraud and mismanagement allegations made against the authority's planning department.
Liberal Democrat leader Reg Shore asked Cllr. Duguid whether he could confirm rumours of senior council members meeting with the suspended officer. Cllr Duguid said:
"I did meet a suspended member of council. However, I did not solicit that meeting and it was unavoidable. I declared that meeting to officers at the earliest opportunity."Responding to Liberal Democrat Group Leader, Cllr. Reg Shore (Stow Ward) and Cllr. Malcolm Leaning, Liberal Democrat (Nettleham Ward), Cllr. Bernard Theobald, Leader of West Lindsey District Council, Conservative (Wold View Ward), commenting on the proposal to expand number of members and the remit of the 'Investigations and Disciplinary Committee' said:
"I think, I stand here in the same role as every other member of this council and that is to act in the best interest of the council taxpayer. We are charged to represent them. That's what we do, the council is really owned by the public and we are their elected members to come and run the council on their behalf, for their benefit. That is to ensure that we deliver the services they require at a cost that is affordable. And to try also to promote things that act in the well-being and interest of the council tax-payer.Cllr. Theobald also criticised the way in which the Liberal Democrats' leadership appeared to be trying to gain some political advantage:
"I heard with interest from Cllr. Leaning who said 'the mess we've got ourselves into'. I'm sitting here trying to think how we've as elected members have got ourselves into this mess because we've had no input into it. This is a mess we had no input into and think that's a problem. We will certainly be held accountable by the public, because we're their members. Therefore it is very important that when we are asked questions by the public we can give them an honest, open and transparent answers. And the only way we are going to be able to do that is by looking at what's happened within the council.
"Now I don't know about this disciplinary matter that was on-going, and I don't know how big an issue it is around other investigations that have taken place or not taken place. The Auditor, remember, is in at our invitation... I've met with the auditor there are issues that were raised in paper G that he said to me, quite categorically, that that is for the Council to look at."
"I am sad if this gets turned into a party political football to make political capital out of.Ultimately Cllr. Theobald said:
"The auditor said to me that on what he'd seen so far 'their was no question of fraud', in his opinion, in the planning department... But in the meantime we still have a headline batting about out there that says 'Fraud and Mismanagement in the Planning Department'... [The Public] they've seen the headline, it's been put out there, they want to know what's going on."
"This is the concern, this council belongs to the members, and the members need to reassure themselves of the conduct of each and everyone of us.. whether by election or whether by employment. We need to know we are all pulling together in the right direction in the best interest of the public, the people we serve."Cllr. Leaning later responded to Cllr. Theobald's comments about the crisis not being of the members making by saying:
"I am in complete agreement."In response to a fudge of delaying tactics that the Liberal democrats deployed Cllr. Theobald said:
"This is about being strong and decisive, it's about saying if their are issues here we want to find out what they are and understand them."Recently re-elected Cllr. Jackie Brockway, Conservative (Saxilby Ward) who crossed the political aisle earlier in the year, gave a strong case for moving forward with the committee, not for the benefit of the councillors, but for the council's employees who do not need the additional burden of holding consecutive, rather than parallel investigations.
Cllr. Reg Shore gave notice that the three Liberal Democrat members would not attend until such time as the Audit Commission report had been received.
Cllr. Theobald, who with 22 Conservative Councillors, 13 Liberal Democrats, 1 Independent and 1 Vacancy (not expected to be filled until May 2010), should have been able to find enough support to carry the motion; but he failed to do so. In the end the motion fell 12:14 with 2 abstentions – Cllr. Theobald declared the issue ‘dead in the water’. Whilst only 28 of the 37 members of the council were able to be in attendance to vote - a number of the Conservative benches must have stayed away.
The Conservative Group Leader said he was disappointed that the opposition group would not allow the investigations committee, which included Cllr Duguid, to expand from five members to eight.
The increase was proposed after the Liberal Democrats refused to provide two members until the independent Audit Commission has completed its review on governance at the authority.
The Liberal Democrat opposition believed the Conservatives were trying to internalise the process by creating this committee.
How this will affect Cllr. Theobald's continued leadership of the Council and Conservative Group is unknown at this time.
Cllr. Theobald told the Lincolnshire Echo the allegations needed investigating to answer public concerns and accused the opposition of a cover-up.
"I am not sure why the Liberal Democrats don't want the matters investigated.Cllr. Shore said there was ‘no chance’ of a cover-up from his party.
"Losing the vote does not question my authority but does question whether the Liberal Democrats should be in the authority. They are acting in other interests. The taxpayer has a right to know what is happening."