COMPLAINTS that a councillor breached a community council code of conduct for holding a “predetermined” view against a recycling facility scheme, have been thrown out by the Public Service Ombudsman for Wales.
Earlier this year, Abermule with Llandyssil Community Council (ALlCC) made the complaint against one of its own councillors, Cllr Alan Meredith-Jones.
Cllr Meredith-Jones is also a member of Abermule Communities Together (ACT).
ACT campaigned against having Powys County Council’s North Powys Bulking Facility built on the outskirts of the village.
When it comes to planning applications ALlCC, like all other town and community councils in Powys is a statutory consultee, but PCC are the decision makers.
Because of his association with ACT and being its treasurer, when Cllr Meredith-Jones joined the council, he was told by its clerk, Gwilym Rippon, that he should declare an interest when the facility came up for discussion.
However, Cllr Meredith-Jones disagreed with this advice, this was taken by the council as a possible breach of their code of conduct, which led to the complaint.
Ombudsman investigating officer, Louise Morland, explained that councillors are allowed to hold views “as long” as they keep an open mind and consider all the arguments and points made on matter before coming to a decision.
Ms Morland said: “Pre-determination is where a member has clearly decided on a course of action in advance of a meeting and is totally unwilling to consider the evidence and arguments presented on that matter during the meeting.
“It is not unusual for politicians to run to oppose or support matters where there is a strength of public feeling.”
She agreed with Cllr Meredith-Jones that he does not have to agree with the clerk’s advice.
Ms Morland said: “I do not consider that it would be proportionate or in the public interest to investigate whether Cllr Meredith-Jones should have declared a personal interest in this circumstance and whether failing to declare this may amount to a breach of the Code of Conduct.”
“Cllr Meredith-Jones has made his involvement in ACT clear and it is included on his register of interests.
She added that ACT deal with matters “affecting the community and has nothing to do with Cllr Meredith-Jones’ “personal or financial wellbeing.”
After receiving this answer, the council went ahead and asked for a second opinion from a solicitor and paid £480 for the advice.
Paul Hoey of Hoey Ainscough Associates Ltd, gave an “opinion” that as Cllr Meredith-Jones is a senior figure in ACT this could be seen as going a “step further” and believed he would have a predetermined position if decisions on the facility were being made.
But, Mr Hoey believed that the question could only be properly decided by a judge in court.
Mr Rippon explained why the council had made the complaints against Cllr Meredith-Jones.
He said that he had initially sought advice from PCC, but as they are behind the recycling facility, it was thought that asking for an independent opinion would be better.
This led to the complaint being made to the Ombudsman.
Mr Rippon said: “The clerk is there to advise members on legislation and procedure.”
“All that the Ombudsman would say was that Cllr Meredith-Jones had a personal interest in this matter and there was nothing in the initial correspondence indicating whether it was predetermined or not.
“So, I was back to square one.”
Mr Rippon said: “I then sought advice from a specialist in the field of code of conduct matters.
“To ensure that the council protects itself from litigation due to poor governance, the council cannot ignore advice from knowledgeable individuals in this matter.”
Cllr Meredith-Jones said that this issue has “defined” his time as a councillor.
He said: “Councillors are supposed to make up our minds solely on the basis of the arguments presented at the time of debate.
“For many years, the accusation of predetermination has been used to stifle debate and this problem was addressed in the Localism Act of 2011.”
Due to this legislation, Cllr Meredith-Jones is “confident” that he doesn’t overstep the mark and is not predetermined in relation to the recycling facility.
“I do have strong opinions in the matter, but this is allowed,” said Cllr Meredith-Jones.
He does concede that if ACT ever applied to the council for grant funding he would need to withdraw from the meeting and not be part of any decisions made on any application.
Photo Credit:Martin Wynne