£100,000 costs of York Council “witch hunt” revealed

In response to a Freedom of information request the York Council has revealed that it paid £98,348.37 to solicitors acting against LibDem Councillor Keith Aspden.

Cllr Keith Aspden

Copies of invoices submitted by solicitors acting for the Council have now been published. They total rather more that the figure admitted by the Council.

 Cllr Aspden had – unjustifiably as it turned out – been accused of breaking the Council’s Code of conduct.

Cllr Aspden was suspended from his executive position and was only recently formally exonerated.

In addition to the costs of engaging outside solicitors, the Council incurred undisclosed internal staffing and other expenses.

As well as loss of earnings, Cllr Aspden was forced do pay for his own legal representation.

To put the matter into perspective, had the £98,000 been spent on road repairs then an additional 6 streets in the City could have been resurfaced last year.

The matter is still subject to an inquiry into how the case came to be so badly mishandled. Compensation may also be on the cards.

At least one official who was involved in the case is set to leave the authority.

Independent probe into failings at York Council

York Councillors are being asked to appoint an individual investigator to look into allegations of malpractice at the York Council.

A decision on an appointment will be made at a meeting next week

The meeting will be held in private

No estimates of the likely cost of the new investigation have been published but it is likely to involve the use the Local Government Association.

It is the latest in a, long line of mishaps at the Council. Relations between officials and some members of the ruling coalition have been tense since two prominent Liberal Democrat Councillors were sacked from the Council Executive by the then Leader David Carr.

The LibDems were subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing although the costs to taxpayers of the investigation were estimated to be around £100,000.

Cllr Aspden was only reinstated as the Councils Deputy Leader last week

Cllr Carr was himself sacked as Council Leader and faced a disciplinary hearing which was held behind closed doors. The results of the meeting were not publicised but it is understood that Cllr Carr claimed that he was only following officer advice

Cllr Aspden – who lost his responsibility allowance while suspended from the Executive – said, after being cleared, that he would consider whether to seek compensation.

 

Aspden cleared but everyone now counting the cost

Cllr Aspden (left) with Cllr Carr who was the Council Leader when the allegations were made. Cllr Carr summarily sacked Keith Aspden from his Executive role.

A York Council “standards board” committee has found that allegations against Cllr Keith Aspden have not been proven. The case centred around a claim that job application papers had been circulated prior to a discussion with third parties in a York pub in 2016.

The committee took over 10 hours to sift through evidence before throwing out the claims.

The committee did however, rightly, say that job applications should not be discussed with third parties and ordered that additional training be given to those involved in job interviews.

The decision ends a 2-year investigation which was instigated by a “whistle-blower” who had himself been sacked by the Council. The claims were first raised some 2 years after the alleged events had taken place.

The investigation is believed to have cost the Authority around £100,000.

The cost to Cllr Aspden, in legal fees and loss of earnings, is thought to be around £20,000.

Attention is now likely to turn to the possibility of compensation.

Two other related cases, involving different Councillors, now need to be resolved quickly.

The Council faces some difficult budget choices in a few weeks time. This case has been an unwelcome and costly distraction

A week’s a long time in …York

The decision by York Tory Councillors to ditch the Council Leader last week wasn’t entirely unexpected. Cllr Carr blundered in the summer when he unilaterally sacked two LibDem members of the Executive. At the time the local standards board had not had the opportunity to investigate the allegations that had been made against them.

The arbitrary action set a precedent, so when a Tory Executive Councillor was accused of failing to declare a pecuniary interest in the Local Plan, the Council Leader had little option to sack him as well.

Whether any of the three have committed any offence has yet to be determined, although the Police have said there is nothing to investigate in the case of the two LibDems.

So where does that leave the York Council?

Cllr Ian Gillies is expected to be installed as the new Council Leader on 22nd February.

He will be the fifth Council Leader that York has had in just over 4 years (Alexander, Williams, Steward, Carr, Gillies).

That is frankly a ridiculous rate of attrition and is damaging not only to relationship within the City but also to York’s reputation at regional and national level.

It takes a new Leader – no matter how experienced – at least 18 months to establish good working relationship both within and outside the Council. Only then can the real work begin.

Cllr Gillies starts with the advantage of being well known in the City. He has a recent successful year as Lord Mayor behind him. He was a major influence in the years between 2007 – 2011 when the Council was also balanced. His view then was that the City should come above politics. He tried the same approach when Labour had an overall majority, facing some criticism from his own side in 2013 when it was becoming clear that the Alexander regime was doomed.

But with scarcely 15 months to go before the next “all out” Council elections, Cllr Gillies effectively faces a damage limitation challenge. Whether he will even be able to repair relations with the LibDems remains to be seen.

So why have things gone so badly wrong over the last few years?

It is mainly a system problem. All out four yearly elections tend to promote a rapid turn over of Councillors.  Fewer these days seem to survive for the 10 years or necessary to build the experience necessary for high office.

Recently few have been able to muster more than 4 years’ experience when they became Leader. Cllr Carr set a record, for inexperience, though, taking the most demanding job at West Offices scarcely 18 months after he was first elected.

Annual elections – where a third of the Council is up for re-election each year – would avoid the extreme shifts in support which usually reflect short term disillusion with whichever party is in power nationally.

The other system failure is the Leader model itself.

The model gives substantial powers – including on the spot “hire and fire” arrangements of the executive committee – to one individual. Effectively if Executive councillors don’t follow his or her instructions then an excuse is found to sack them.

The system simply doesn’t work on a balanced Council. Here the subtleties of discourse and compromise are needed to move forward. Unilateral action by an individual simply promotes mistrust.

There is a warning here for those seeking a Yorkshire Mayor. If she or he chooses to, then they could spend 4 or 5 years completely ignoring the wishes of residents, while pursuing policies based on a fundamentalist ideology or sectional interest.

Recent events are likely to lead to a call for the reintroduction of the “committee system” at Council level. Here all issues are debated openly by committees which reflect the overall political balance of the Council.

It promotes openness and consensus decision making.

It won’t come quickly but perhaps by 2019 electors will be ready to accept that the present system simply isn’t working in York.

 

Police confirm “nothing to investigate” decision on suspended Councillors

Cllrs Aspden and Carr

It will come as no surprise to most residents that the Police have decided that there is no case to answer following an allegation made by Council Leader Carr regarding the conduct of two Executive councillors (Aspden and Ayre).

He arbitrarily suspended them from their offices in September. The power he used was designed to give elected Leaders an opportunity to change Cabinet placements but – when a coalition existed – needed to be exercised with caution, tact and agreement.

His action was none of these.

His public claim that the allegations against the two Councillors were “serious” was highly prejudicial (and likely in most residents eyes to be viewed as untrue)

The Police decision will hopefully bring Cllr Carr’s resignation forward by a few weeks. A fresh start could then be made in time for the important budget Council meeting on 22nd February.

The Councils Standards Committee could now decide to extend the period of uncertainty which has descended on West Offices.

They already have had had the opportunity to consider a report produced by, what officials at the time claimed to be, an independent third party, into allegations linked to the leaking of “confidential”  information to residents. This, in turn, arose from a further confidential report into “contract” issues.

But the Standards Committee failed to use the autumn profitably to test the issues raised. Several members of that committee themselves have also issued public statements which could be regarded as prejudicial to the fair and impartial assessment of any allegations.

The water is further muddied by another report which the Council Leader has been pressurised to make public. It also referred to the actions of Councillors and officials at a stormy Audit committee meeting earlier in the year.

The Councils Chief Executive has been indecisive and  ineffectual in dealing with the issue. There is no obvious way forward.

However, what is clear is that there needs to be more transparency in the Council with all reports routinely published unless there are real, pressing and justifiable reasons not to do so.