Transparency returns to York Council decision making process?

Two decisions on the award of large IT contracts are to be taken in public next week as the York Council takes its first tentative steps towards a more open approach.  It is not the decisions themselves which have attracted attention but rather it is the justification offered for placing them before a public meeting.

The report states “that councillors consider routine procurement decisions over £250k in value in line with procurement regulations and the public have the opportunity to see transparent decision-making in operation relating to major procurements.”

That is always supposed to have happened but some officials have sought to exploit loopholes in the budget process to justify making implementation decisions behind closed doors.  Such “routine” decisions must be reported to the responsible executive member in a “register” This has not been done routinely in a transparent way.

It appears that the Executive are now insisting that proposals are tabled individually. That is a step in the right direction.

The two decisions being made on 18th November relate to

  1. Expenditure of £323,800 on an “on line” customer payments system
  2. A £710,000 investment in a new document management system.  

The meeting will also hear that the Council is scrapping a proposed joint procurement with Harrogate to appoint a technology provider.

Instead the current provider in York will continue until summer 2020 with a new supplier, for managed network services, taking over then. The Council current spends around £2 million per annum on this service.

Full marks to Cllr Nigel Ayre who is taking the first tentative steps towards making the Council more open and accountable

In a hole – continue digging

Secrecy culture alive and well at the York Council

“Decision” notice published by York Council yesterday

The latest, on the confidential report saga at the York Council, has been revealed.

Councillors are being asked to sign a “confidentiality agreement” before they will be allowed to see a report into last year’s, very public, fall out at the Audit and Governance Committee.

What happened at the meeting has been in the public arena from day one as a “webcast” allowed residents to view the meeting “on line”. The recording of the meeting is still available.

Relations between Council officials and some committee members broke down and subsequently an investigatory report was commissioned. A heavily redacted copy of that report was presented to an Audit meeting but not surprisingly Councillors said that they could not do their jobs without sight of the full report.  Subsequently Councillors agreed to discuss the report in private, but officials initially refused to release it in advance of their meeting.

Now it transpires that -with a shuffle in committee membership in the offing next week – those participating will only get “hard copy” and will have to sign a legally binding confidentiality agreement.

But how does this protect the interests of taxpayers? If the independent report – which cost several thousands of pounds to produce – is critical of processes or structures how can residents be confident that there will not be a repetition?

We look forward to hearing how Councillors intend to restore confidence in their stewardship?

In the meantime, several Freedom of Information requests have been lodged in an attempt to get the full report into the public domain.

 

But the York Council is not alone in seeking to cast a veil over accountability issues. Earlier last week, the Police and Crime Commissioner for North Yorkshire was expected to answer questions about the unexplained and hasty departure of the last Chief Constable from his post.

The overnight decision came without warning , leaving some doubt about whether the appropriate 3 months’ notice had been given (and if so when).

At a public “scrutiny” meeting , the PCC refused to answer questions on the topic before choosing to  eject the press and public and  go into a private session.

A similar “immediate retirement” occurred in 2011 when the then Deputy Chief Constable left the force. It was several years before the full picture behind the decision emerged.

Some officials don’t seem to realise that the reputation of an organisation is likely to be further damaged in the eyes of the public by secrecy – and the inevitable speculation that follows – rather than adopting a more open and frank approach from the outset.

Council publish secret contracts report

The York Council has finally published the controversial report into payments to contractors over the last few years.

The publication was ordered by Councillors last week although Labour representatives made a last ditch attempt to keep the document secret.

Campaign against secrecy started 6 years ago

The Council have now issued the following statement

 “We’ve published the report from last week’s audit and governance committee meeting.

“It can be read and downloaded  by clicking here 

“A copy continues to be available for inspection at our West Offices.

“We’re sorry there has been a delay in making the report available.  

“We had to seek legal guidance from the office of the Information Commissioner because the report contains personal information.

“We take our duties under the Data Protection Act seriously, but, at the same time, we wish to be an open, honest and transparent council

Some of the report has been redacted but it does provide a greater insight into how broken management systems at the authority were in 2014.

York Council scrambles to make £100,000+ staff exit sweeteners

Bid to beat government cap deadline

Behind clsoed doors 2016

The York Council will hold a private meeting in a few days time to consider what exit payments to make to senior staff leaving the Authority. The move follows a decision last month to reduce the size of its management team.

One Director will lose her job. It appears that one “Chief Officer” is seeking to retire early.

Council regulations require that any pay off deals, costing over £100,000, are authorised by Councillors.

No details of the individual payments have been published – to preserve individual privacy – but the payments are expected to be amongst the highest ever authorised by the York Council.

The Council report includes the following statement on national policy,

The Government is currently consulting upon options to introduce a cap on the total cost of exit payments for staff working in the public sector. The total figure which has been proposed is £95k. The specific details of the scheme are still subject to consultation and have not been published but there is likely to be some form of ‘capping’ of exit payments introduced at some point in the coming months. On the 24th February, the Minister of State responsible for the introduction of these provisions confirmed that the earliest implementation date would be 1st October 2016″.

The Council has not yet fully responded to a FOI request for information on why it has imposed confidentiality (compromise) agreements in  respect of 41 redundancy decisions made over the last 5 years.

While individuals do have a right to privacy, taxpayers also need to be convinced that their money is being spent wisely.

No justification is offered for the proposal to offer enhanced terms on “early retirement” to one officer and it appears that one of the posts will subsequently be filled by recruitment.

Sadly some will see this as another case of lack of transparency at the City of York Council made worse by an indecent haste to evade central government restrictions?

York Council moves to legitimise Local Plan decision date

Big City smallThe latest Forward Plan -which indicates when key decisions are scheduled to be taken by the York Council – has been amended to include consideration of a new Draft Local Plan.

The Council has said that it will consider which sites will be allocated for new housing when its Executive meets on 30th June.

Residents were mystified when, last week, Councillors said discussion of the changes was imminent. No item had been placed on the Forward Plan and the Executive’s own agenda – which outlines the issues that will be considered at its subsequent two meetings – was also silent on the issue.

The Council has still not said when its Local Plan Working Group will meet. The all party group has not met since 30th November 2015.  It would normally meet to discuss any draft proposals before forwarding them to the Executive for approval.

We understand that Council officials are briefing the owners of major sites in the City this month. They are being told what to expect when the Draft Plan is released next month.secret decisions

Eyes will be on major sites like Clifton Gate (between Clifton Moor and Skelton) and Whinthorpe (Between Elvington and the A64) both of which have traditionally formed part of York’s Green Belt. If either (or both) were to be slated for development then huge amounts would need to be spend on infrastructure improvements. The former would require a dualled A1237, while the later would require a new access corridor because of  existing transport congestion in the area. The source and scale of the funding required must be made clear in any Council decision.

It is little short of outrageous that vested interests will find out the fate of projects worth tens of millions of pounds before ordinary residents and taxpayers are even told when they will be able to first see the proposals.

 

 

£100,000 travel contract let by York Council in behind closed doors decision

Air travel included.

secret-meeting-safe-picThe York Council has appointed a new travel agent. They have gained a contract expected to be worth around £100,000 a year. They will deal with the Councils rail, hotel and “air” travel requirements.

Last year the Council spent £124,194 on this type of travel.

The decision was taken earlier in the week by a Council official at a behind closed doors meeting. No prior notice of the meeting was provided and the decision is not subject to “call in”.

Curiously the decision notice is listed as being taken on “4th May 2016” which isn’t until next Wednesday.

Travel procurement

City of York Trading

secret-meeting-safe-picWe revealed last September that secret payments had been made to various Directors at the City of York Trading company.

This is the Council owned company which “sells” surplus resources mainly to Council Departments and schools.  It was an invention of the last Labour administration and replaced an internal system where, potentially redundant, surplus staff were used to back-fill vacancies.

The Council tonight will consider tonight an auditor’s report into discrepancies with the payments.

Effectively the report simply confirms what most residents had worked out. That, by 2014, the governance systems of the York Council had broken down.

No officer or Councillor has accepted responsibility for the irregularities which seem to have arisen over a misjudged attempt by the Council Leadership to buy the loyalty of senior officials.

The new regime – elected last May – was very slow to recognise the inadequacies of its relationships with its QUANGO partners. It even made the mistake of endorsing a new one (Made in York) without setting up adequate performance monitoring arrangements.

Now the agenda for a York City Trading shareholders meeting has been published.

Unfortunately all the information reports are marked as “confidential” and are not available to taxpayers

So it seems little has changed!

Behind closed doors decision confirms York role in “Rail North Ltd”

Devolution of rail franchising on agenda

Papers published today reveal that York decided to join Rail North Ltd (RNL) and the Association of Rail North Partner Authorities on 30th November.

Rail North is the name of an interim organisation that was established with the aim of promoting the devolution of rail franchising from Whitehall to the North of England. It is grouping of all 30 local transport authorities in the North of England.

Details of the terms that would apply to York’s continuing participation in the project have been revealed in a comprehensive report.

The decision was made by the Councils Chief Executive.

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

The voting power that the City would have in the conglomerate (54 votes out of 1003) are revealed (see left).

The City would pick up the same proportion of the costs. No indications are given in the papers of the scale of any such liability.

In the short term they are described as “nominal”.

The new franchises for the Northern and TransPennine services were announced a couple of weeks ago.

The new Council seems to be doing little better than its predecessor on transparency issues.

There is really no reason why the relevant reports like these could not be published before meetings actually took place.

Other recent behind closed doors decisions include:

A full list of York Council decisions can be found by clicking here

 

Behind closed doors

York City Tradingsecret decisions

Following on from our story about the remuneration of the Directors of Quangos in York, a Tory Councillor has announced in the media that any such payments, made to Council officials who run the City of York Trading, will cease. That is the right decision, but is has apparently been made without other members of the so called shareholders committee having had a meeting to discuss the issue.

The Executive meeting last week also singularly failed to specify under what circumstances, if any, Directors of publicly owned companies would receive remuneration.

It points to endemic failings in governance processes at the York Council.

The Council should agree to put details of the meetings of all shareholder committees (which are supposed to look after the public interest) in their calendar of meetings while publishing agendas, supporting papers and meeting minutes promptly.

They should also retrospectively publish the minutes of all shareholders meetings which previously have been held in private (which might help to lift the veil on why three Labour Councillors agreed to the financial inducements in the first place).

Make it York

closed doorsAnother concern is the method of operation of another shareholders committee which seeks to govern the work of Make it York – another wholly council owned Quango.

After pressure, that committee agreed on 6th July to meet in public and publish agendas and meeting minutes. Now, only 5 working days before their meeting is scheduled to take place on 5th October, the agenda and supporting papers don’t even appear on the Council’s web site.

 It was only after a Freedom of Information request had been lodged, that residents even got to know that the meeting was planned!

Neither of the shareholders committees are identified in the formal list of Council committees

The secret life of decisions part 2

secret-meeting-safe-picThe Council continues to decide issues without publishing agendas in advance of meetings, We have condemned this practice in the past although – because the decisions area generally minor – our view is that papers should be published in advance to allow written representations to be made by residents.

Examples of recent behind closed doors decisions include (click to view details):

More behind closed doors decisions

BehindClosedDoors 2015

The York Council is continuing its policy of printing agendas and reports for officer decision meetings after they have taken place.

This robs interested residents of the opportunity to make representations.

Two recent examples have been

  1. A decision on introducing residents parking priority in Newborough Street
  2. A proposal ” To convert three existing Housing Support Worker posts to specialist Mental Health Support Worker posts; Director of Communities & Neighbourhoods

There is no reason why advanced notice of issues like these should not be given