Monday, 21 August 2017

Council forced to reveal ‘secret’ minutes

SONNING Parish Council has released its record of a private meeting following a complaint to the Government’s data watchdog.

SONNING Parish Council has released its record of a private meeting following a complaint to the Government’s data watchdog.

The council initially refused to publish the minutes after a resident requested them under the Freedom of Information Act.

However, it backed down when the Information Commissioner stepped in.

The private talks were held last year after the Sonning and Sonning Eye Society complained about a councillor’s behaviour.

The society said Councillor Pat Doyle, who is now council chairman, was rude to residents at the village’s annual parish assembly in May.

It claimed Cllr Doyle responded in a “high-handed and intemperate manner” to questions about plans to light the footpath at Sonning Bridge.

At a full meeting the following month, the council voted to exclude the press and public before discussing the complaint.

Colin McCulloch, a member of the society, then asked for the minutes under the 2000 FoI Act.

The 67-year-old, of Thames Street, Sonning, claimed the council rebuffed him by claiming the record did not exist.

When he asked again, he said it claimed a legal exception under the Local Government Act 1972.

However, this only exists to protect the personal details of residents who contact the authority.

Mr McCulloch then complained to the commissioner, which advised the council it should release the document.

He said: “The real issue isn’t in the detail of what was discussed at that meeting, it’s more about the principle of a council withholding information on its activities.

“Sonning Parish Council failed to understand the obligations of being a publicly elected body.

“The advice from the Information Commissioner’s Office should serve as a warning that unnecessary secrecy is incompatible with open and accountable local government.

“It might sound trivial but if a parish council can try to hide silly things like this then others may try to conceal more serious wrongdoings.

“We pay our taxes to keep these public bodies in being and they must not be allowed to treat us like that in return.”

According to the minutes, Cllr Doyle felt the society had led an “orchestrated attack” on him at the parish meeting.

Councillor Mark Green, who was the council’s chairman at the time, agreed that Cllr Doyle’s comments had been “strongly worded”.

Cllr Doyle was advised that in future he should make it clear when he was expressing a personal opinion rather than speaking on the council’s behalf.

The matter was then deemed closed.

No one from the council was available to comment.

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