Monday, 19 May 2008

Standards Commissioner (again)

You may recall some time ago that the Provost had been the subject of a complaint to the Standards Commissioner. You can find my post on it here. I intimated then that I found the whole thing to be farcical.

No sooner was that one thrown out though, but she was the subject of another complaint regarding planning. Effectively, the Provost's son is involved in a planning issue and each time it has come before the Development Standards Committee, the Provost has declared an interest and left the room.

I'm not going to go into it, as it is explained below, but the complaint has again been thrown out. I have pasted the finding of the Standards Commissioner, and I have highlighted in bold some interesting parts.

Needless to say, I have my own, rather strong views on this, and I think it very unfortunate indeed that the Provost of Angus, someone for whom I have the highest regard, was subjected to another investigation. Read the findings for yourself.

1. Complaint number LA/An/660 alleged a contravention of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct (“the Code”) by Councillor Ruth Leslie Melville (“the respondent”).

2. It was alleged that the respondent had contravened the Code, in particular the Key Principles of Duty, Selflessness, Integrity, Openness and Leadership, and of paragraphs 5.15 and 5.19 relating to Declarations of Interest and paragraphs 7.3, 7.4 and 7.7 relating to Taking Decisions on Individual Applications.

3. The persons complaining, Councillors Iain Gaul and Ralph Palmer (“the complainants”) alleged that the respondent’s declarations of interest in her son’s planning applications were misleading and lacking in transparency; that she should not have rejoined the Development Standards Committee when the matter was recurring, and that her decision to do so gave rise to appearance of improper conduct and of having a family interest in the outcome. They also alleged that she abused her position as Provost to pressurise the Convener of the Development Standards Committee into stopping the proposed enforcement action and, by association, pressurising officers. The complainants suggested this indicated that at least two members of the Angus Alliance had been discussing planning items outwith Committee and had agreed a course of action. They had a separate concern that Councillor Leslie Melville declared an interest in that she knew the director of a firm of developers, but participated in the meeting.

4. The Councillors Code of Conduct is intended to provide a set of principles and a framework within which Councillors properly conduct their business and exercise their responsibilities. Interests which require to be declared may be financial or non-financial. Paragraph 5.15 of the Code states that a declaration of interest should identify the item or items of business to which it relates and must be sufficiently informative to enable those at the meeting to understand the nature of the interest, but need not give a detailed description of the interest.

5. The Code does not demand a detailed description of the interest and it is therefore a matter for councillors to decide how to describe the interest. While individual cases may vary, and erring on the side of caution is advisable, it would be hard to argue that any councillor had breached the Code who declared an interest in a planning application as concerning a relative and left the meeting without participating in the item. In the case of Councillor Leslie Melville, it would seem that she consistently declared an interest when her son’s planning application, or enforcement action relating to that, appeared on an agenda of the Development Standards Committee. I strongly suspect that, at least during the enforcement action period, most of the longer standing members of the Committee were well aware that the applicant in this case was Councillor Leslie Melville’s son. For those new councillors who were elected at May 2007, there was a possibility they might not have been immediately aware of this. However, they had the benefit of being able to see her son’s name fully set out in the enforcement update lists of 31 May, 21 June 2007 and 12 July 2007, and could hardly have been in doubt there was a close connection between him and Councillor Ruth Leslie Melville. In this connection, I have concluded that Councillor Leslie Melville acted entirely properly and within the terms of the Code in making her declaration of interest and withdrawing from meetings.
6. The provisions in paragraph 5.19 of the Code were intended to draw attention to conflicts of interest that might require frequent declarations at Committee meetings or in any role to which a councillor was appointed. In my view, they would not normally apply to a matter such as a single, ongoing planning application or enforcement issue. This is a situation which any councillor could at some time come up against and, instead of debarring a member from the Committee, the declaration of interest provisions in the Code provide the proper course of action for dealing with it. In any event, in the case of Councillor Leslie Melville, I agree with her that when she rejoined the Committee in May 2007, it could not have been foreseen how long or how often her son’s case would be on the agenda.

7. The claims of pressure on officers, whether indirectly or by association have been examined. Planning Officers have all indicated that they were under no pressure, direct or indirect, in regard to the handling of Councillor Leslie Melville’s son’s planning affairs. They have explained why they recommended that enforcement action should not proceed. In matters such as that which are at the centre of this case (ie the provision of a turning head) they take particular account of the Roads Department’s views. It is the case that Roads officers never required a turning head be provided at any of the houses and Planning Officers acknowledged and accepted this. Indeed, Planning Officers had not changed their recommendation because it was consistent with their recommendation to approve the application for deletion of the condition relating to the turning head. However, it is understandable why Committee members queried the request by officers to give advice in private, since this is apparently unusual in the Development Standards Committee. Nonetheless, Planning Officers and the Head of Law and Administration have explained why they wanted an opportunity to advise the Committee on certain points in private.

8. I did not consider there was evidence of pressure on any officer or member by Councillor Ruth Leslie Melville. The remarks overheard in the gents toilet were not indicative of any pressure on, or collusion or discussion with, Councillor Lumgair. He has explained that, as Convener, he would normally have moved the planning report; however, like other Committee members, he was in favour of enforcement action being taken and therefore could not move the report which did not recommend enforcement. The claims of alleged or perceived financial interest on the part of Councillor Leslie Melville in regard to her son’s planning affairs have been contended and without any evidence being provided in support. Nor did I see any error or breach on her part in her approach to declaring and participating in a decision on a separate planning application relating to an acquaintance, as raised by the complainants. There appeared to me no evidence as alleged in the complaint of breaches of the Code of Conduct by Councillor Ruth Leslie Melville.

9. Having considered the information that arose from my investigation, I concluded that Councillor Ruth Leslie Melville had not contravened the Councillors’ Code of Conduct.

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