A clear conflict of interest, a flagrant breach, and a questionable outcome

The minutes of Much Wenlock Town Council’s Finance and Resources Management Committee meetings for January and February 2018 have just been published. Of interest to some will be the reversal of decisions taken at consecutive meetings – about a tenant’s dog, the Corn Exchange market table plan and the Town Clerk’s pay review.

To reverse a decision, the Town Council has to “rescind” the resolution that has been made and then propose an alternative course of action – if it is within six months of the original resolution.

So, quite properly, the Town Council, back in May 2017, decided “In accordance with Standing Order no. 7a Members considered a proposal by Cllr. Milner Whiteman to rescind the following decision made at a Town Council meeting held on 6 April 2017: “Any one trader can have one pitch on the Square, once per week only, and people trading in Much Wenlock (local shops any businesses) can have a stall on the Square, once per week only, free of charge” (minute no. 20). The proposal was supported by Cllr. Herbert Harper and Cllr. Mary Hill”. Whether we think the revised decision was the right one is a matter of opinion, but the procedure seems correct and legal.

The formal rules, that is Standing Orders” says, at item 7. “Previous resolutions”:
“a) A resolution shall not be reversed within six months except either by a special motion, which requires written notice by at least three councillors to be given to the Proper Officer in accordance with standing order 9 below, or by a motion moved in pursuance of the recommendation of a committee or a subcommittee.”

So far, so good. Rolling forward to 2018, and the Town Council’s Finance and Resources Management Committee in January made a number of decisions, including that:

  • a request from the tenant at Linden Lodge to be allowed to have a dog should be denied.
  • a table layout plan for the “Corn Market” should be approved, and
  • Town Clerk should be awarded a 2% pay increase effective from 1 April 2018.

Any member of the public present could have heard the debate and the decision. Significantly, and quite properly, the Town Clerk was not present during the discussion of the last item. Those who were present for the discussion were Councillors Venning, Childs, Gibbon, Themans and Walter – five in all.

Clearly all was not well with these decisions, taken by democratically-elected members of the Town Council’s Finance Committee, advised by a professional and qualified Town Clerk. In the February 2018 meeting, the minutes show at item 17 (in the confidential part of the meeting), that it was “PROPOSED, SECONDED and AGREED to rescind the decision” and “the tenant could have a dog”.

At item 8) it was decided that “at the last meeting a new table plan had been agreed for those wanting to rent a stall at the Corn Market. The new plan had not been well received ….. this decision be rescinded and that the matter be re-considered. It was PROPOSED, SECONDED and AGREED that this decision be rescinded.” Other arrangements were agreed.

And, finally, we come to item 18 of the meeting: “Performance and salary review”. The minutes record that “Members were advised that the pay award of 2% awarded at the last meeting was not in accordance with the Contracts of Employment for the Town Clerk and the Assistant to the Town Clerk which make provision for both to progress up the pay scale upon satisfactory performance.” There is no mention in the minutes of this meeting of the outcome of the performance review(s), despite it being an agenda item. One wonders what advice was given to the members of the committee in February that was omitted in January. Is it significant that, between the two meetings, two councillors resigned? The three remaining councillors on this committee were required to reconsider a decision.

There are at least three very important issues at stake here.

  1. It is quite clear that the Town Council’s Standing Orders require that a motion requires its mover to give written notice of its wording to the “Proper Officer” (the Town Clerk) at least seven clear days before the meeting. Which Councillor was the mover who gave written notice “To re-consider and approve a performance and salary review for the Town Clerk and Assistant to the Town Clerk”? If no councillor gave written notice, why was this matter on the agenda?
  2. There was no rescission (or, at least, none was minuted) of the January decision to award 2%.
  3. According to the minutes, the Town Clerk did not withdraw from the meeting in the same way that she did at the previous meeting when the same issue was under discussion. Why did she stay? Was it to ensure that councillors made the “correct” decision?

The outcome decision was that “It was PROPOSED, SECONDED and AGREED that, in accordance with their Contracts of Employment, the Town Clerk and the Assistant to the Town Clerk should have a salary increase in line with their Contracts of Employment.”

On the face of the minuted proceedings of this committee meeting it appears that the Town Clerk’s pay review has been handled incorrectly (in maybe both January and February) and, possibly, illegally. Given that the three remaining members of the committee were (presumably) advised by the Town Clerk, there appears to be a clear conflict of interest, a flagrant breach of Standing Orders and a questionable outcome.