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IS ARUN DELIBERATELY FALSIFYING ITS MINUTES?

 

It is normal practice with all councils that minutes of meetings are recorded by a responsible officer, and at the next meeting the council is asked to confirm that it is an accurate record. Sometimes, councillors ask for amendments before the minutes are signed by the Chairman.  However, in at least two recent instances at Arun District Council their minutes have been significantly and knowingly inaccurate, in spite of the Council constitution Part 5, para.19.1 which states that: "The Chairman will sign the minutes...as a correct record."

At the Council's meeting on 10th January 2018, in public question time, former Arun Councillor Tony Dixon asked Council Leader Mrs Gillian Brown to explain how she considered the Council's Linear Park proposals would contribute towards the regeneration of the town. Apart from a vague comment about the proposed park being a "stimulus for new private sector investment" this question was not answered, and it can only be presumed that Mrs Brown was referring to the 100 flats that the Council is quietly planning for the site.

However, that question from Mr Dixon was not mentioned at all in the subsequent minutes of the meeting, nor was any part of Mrs. Brown’s vague answer. Effectively, the whole thing had disappeared from view, so that no subsequent reader would be aware that it had been asked.

"This revealed," said Mr. Dixon subsequently, "that not only was Mrs Brown entirely unable to identify any regeneration benefits from Arun's proposed re-arranged car park, but also that the Council is "airbrushing" public scrutiny of any potential regeneration benefits from its minutes ahead of any future planning application.  This is against the spirit of the Local Government Act which requires Local Planning Authorities to adopt a far greater degree of openness and transparency than normal for proposals where it may grant itself planning permission."

COMPLAINT

In response to Mr. Dixon's complaint, the Council claimed that it is under no obligation to minute public questions in full, but "summarises" them and publishes them in full on another part of its website.  This is unsatisfactory on several counts.  Firstly, this means that the minutes are not an accurate record at all, and should not be signed off as such. The public questions at Arun are part of the meeting, unlike some other councils, and they are contravening their own constitution.

Secondly, the "summarising" is dangerously open to re-interpretation of what has been said, and political manipulation.  And thirdly, it is not immediately apparent to subsequent readers that full publication appears elsewhere, and hence the full thrust and detail of any question may never be seen.

Mr. Dixon’s complaints were dismissed by Arun, so he complained to the Local Government Ombudsman.  It has to be said that the Ombudsman has a reputation for "protecting" councils wherever possible and, predictably, the Ombudsman decided that there was "not sufficient injustice" to proceed with the complaint ‒ which was no surprise to Mr. Dixon.

So it has now been confirmed that it is in order for any council to manipulate its minuting of public questions (and possibly elsewhere) to suit itself, with complete impunity. And if nobody speaks out about it, nobody will know.  In this case, all Arun Councillors knew, because Mr. Dixon informed them ‒ and not one of them spoke up.  Secrecy reigns at Arun.

PETITION ORGANISER

More recently, at Arun's September 2018 Full Council meeting Civic Society Deputy Chairman Hugh Coster presented a 2,479 signature petition asking the Council to consider including a multi-use entertainment complex incorporating a winter ice rink into their regeneration plans.

Mr. Coster was already aware from material presented to the Councillors with the agenda, that the Council was only focusing on large stadiums for such activities as speed skating and ice hockey, and wished to make it clear to members that the petition was not for large enterprises such as that, but more for a smaller rink for leisure skating, and which could be used for other purposes during the rest of the year.  He said to them: "...please do not be concerned about size. Your consultants only refer to major rinks and stadiums, claiming a Bognor rink would have to be  3224 sq.m.  Utterly, utterly wrong, the successful Christmas rink covered just 531 sq.m. No need for a big stadium."

The Council's minutes stated that Mr. Coster referred to the size of rink that could be used "To attract activities such as speed skating and ice hockey..." And when he saw them on the Council’s website a few days later he complained.  "This was precisely what I did not say," he told NewsBognor, "and having that in the minutes will deceive those reading them later.  It is falsifying my words and I object very strongly."

The response to his complaint was that that once the minutes had been published on the website the wording could not be changed. "But how am I to know that it's wrong before you publish it, if you don’t refer to me first?" he asked. "You could write anything you like in my name and it would be impossible to change, which is plainly unreasonable."

Eventually a compromise was reached in that a revised wording would be put to the next meeting so that the minutes would be corrected before being signed. However, at that meeting, after an amendment had been proposed and some fierce debate it was decided that the wording could not be changed because: "it would be a dangerous precedent to start allowing requests from members of the public to amend Council minutes. This was because the accuracy of the minutes was for the Council to determine."

So it would appear that the accuracy of the minutes is not what was actually said, but what the Council (or more accurately, some anonymous person within the Council) invents and decides, in its infinite wisdom to include, delete or change. The minutes will not be a true and accurate record after all, but simply a fiction to suit the politics of the day.

THE LESSON

The lesson we learn from all this is not to trust what Arun writes in its minutes.  The above are just two examples, but there is no way to know what other fictions are appearing in the minutes all year through.  It should be the responsibility of all the Councillors to keep the Council honest in this, but as was seen from Mr. Dixon's experience above, most of them keep their heads down and their mouths shut.  In Mr. Coster's case a few honest councillors did speak up and try to put the matter right, notably Cllrs James Walsh and Matt Stanley who proposed and seconded the amendment, but most of the rest preferred to grovel to the Council's political leadership.

After all, they have to consider the coming election and their impending selection panels.  Wouldn’t do to get rejected just for sake of honesty and truth!

November 2018

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