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The Dragon Says: How Our Council Is Managed and Run Is Our Business

Published on: 9 Aug, 2013
Updated on: 10 Aug, 2013

Dragon Roar Still 470We are not allowed to know why chief executive David Hill has been sent on special leave, granted, according to a Guildford Borough Council spokesperson “in unusual circumstances which do not fit other categories of leave”.

We do know that the complaint has been brought by the head of HR, Judith Coslett, who has now decided to quit her council post. It is not known whether her complaint, said to be comprehensive, is primarily about personal treatment affecting her or treatment of others.

But it does raise question marks over previous suspensions and whether they were conducted properly.

We could conclude that Mr Hill is not alleged to have committed anything regarded as “gross misconduct” for which he could be officially suspended. But the council will be wary about doing anything that will allow him to increase any claim against them.

In the meantime, he continues to receive full pay and why not, until any case is proved or settlement reached that is?

But the delay is not a good thing, especially when there is an absolute refusal to tell us anything about the case. Justice delayed is justice denied, as they say. Justice delayed is also justice more expensive. Lawyers don’t come cheap.

Of course, we should not be surprised by the council’s reticence or the delay. The Electric Theatre case has taken almost a year to reach a conclusion and we have been told precious little about that.

The council might conclude that it can get away with the secrecy. There is, after all, endemic apathy about our local democracy. Most of us can’t even be bothered to vote.

But for those of us who do care there is something deeply unsavoury about all this. If the only reason for not giving any information about these cases is legal and out of its hands the council should say so, apologetically. If policy is the reason then it needs to be changed.

How our council is managed and how council officers conduct themselves and are treated is our business. The council governs our town but it does so with our democratic permission, as our representatives, with our money. The instinct for secrecy must be changed if the council’s proclaimed core value of openness and transparency is going to mean anything, otherwise it will become even more risible.

What for instance, can be in David Hill’s contract that must be kept confidential? We already know how much pay and expenses he receives, so what can be so damaging about publication? If it is only potential embarrassment that is at stake then that is a very poor reason for non-disclosure.

In the past, there has appeared to be a complacency, almost smugness, that could be inferred from the council’s refusals to comment. There also seemed to be some surprise that the reasons for non-disclosure were challenged. But it is simply not good enough for a public body to just say “that is the way we do things”.

Those responsible need to understand  that the reputation of the council is at stake.  Whatever has happened must be serious. It certainly should be if it warrants sending the chief executive on indefinite ‘gardening leave’ and probably, in the end, paying him many thousands of pounds of our money to go away.

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