Council to review secret discussions

Council to review secret discussions

14 August 2013

A MAJOR review of how Down councillors conduct their meetings is to take place amid accusations of secrecy.

Councillors have come in for criticism recently over the number of major decisions, involving millions of pounds of ratepayers’ money, which are being taken behind closed doors.

Politicians have always held ‘in committee’ discussions normally for issues involving staffing or commercially sensitive issues, but recently the public has been barred from debates on major, public interest issues.

In May councillors went into committee to discuss plans for the new Down Leisure Centre which ended with a decision to spend an additional £2.5m on the project. There were no staffing issues and the matter was not commercially sensitive yet still the media were barred.

Earlier this year councillors almost forced the closure of the St. Patrick Centre by withdrawing an annual £100,000 loan. The closure was averted at the last moment after intense discussions with Centre officials. Councillors debated the issue in committee.

For years almost all decisions on Drumanakelly landfill site have been cloaked in mystery because of a near blanket ban on the discussion of anything to do with what is one of Down Council’s biggest expenditures.

The decision to look again at the way the media and public are barred from meetings came on Monday night when Killyleagh councillor William Walker asked for a change in policy.

He said many discussions ended up in the pages of the Down Recorder anyway after councillors breached the in committee ruling and briefed reporters.

“I believe some of these issues

in committee should be out there

in the public domain, for example the St. Patrick Centre,” he said. “If they are going to spend two or three million pounds on Down Leisure Centre the public are entitled to know that.

Councillor Walker said allowing the press to stay for such discussions would enable them to obtain a fuller picture of the issue under debate.

“This is a serious matter,” he added.

Councillor Terry Andrews seconded the proposal, stating that the council must aim for “transparency in local government”.

Councillor Colin McGrath said he agreed with the proposal for the council’s in committee guidelines to be amended.

“It is something that has just increased over the years,” he said. “It used to be an occasional item.

“It really does create an atmosphere that we have something to hide.”

Councillor McGrath argued that an agreement should be put in place with the press and that they should be briefed on any sensitive issues.

Councillors Carmel O’Boyle and Stephen Burns agreed with councillor McGrath.

Councillor Burns said that notwithstanding occasional “anomalies” the vast majority of its business should be conducted in public.

“We put a lot of stuff in committee that does not need to be there,” he said.

Council chief executive John Dumigan said he would be concerned about legal issues and sensitive staffing issues being aired to non-council staff.

The council voted in favour of amending its current in committee guidelines and the issue will be brought back for further discussion at a future meeting.