I won't be gagged says ex chairman banned from resignation speech
- Credit: Archant
An extraordinary ‘sue me if you dare’ attack was launched today by the senior councillor who until recently was chairman of the county council audit and accounts committee.
Cllr Mike Shellens tore into the Tory controlled county council for refusing to release the full 400 page, £68,000, audit report into Manor Farm.
He questioned why, if former Manor Farm tenant and former deputy council leader Roger Hickford had done nothing wrong “why did he resign?”
And “why did Steve Count, his boss and leader of the council, feel it right that Mr Hickford be no longer part of his team even for the last few weeks?”
Cllr Shellens didn’t stop there, claiming he had been gagged from explaining to councillors his reasons for quitting as chairman
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“In advance of today’s Cambridgeshire County Council meeting, I had prepared a short statement,” he said.
“It explained why I thought it right to resign my role as chair of the county council’s audit and accounts committee at our meeting on March 5.
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“I was startled to discover at the last minute that I was not to be accorded a space in today’s county council meeting to explain.”
Cllr Shellens said he asked two senior Conservative colleagues for support “but neither would help”.
He said: “It is as if they did not want the issue discussed any more, to forget about it.
“I am disappointed that members who did not attend the original meeting or had not availed themselves of the recording would not be aware of the tensions.”
Cllr Shellens said: “They would be unaware of the potential dangers and could not learn the lessons available as the county puts this unhappy episode behind it.
“The numbers listening in to the council’s YouTube recording indicate to me that there was widespread interest from Cambridgeshire residents in the issues raised.”
Cllr Shellens said he had therefore decided to make his draft text public “in the hope that any publicity you can give it will answer some of the points of public concern”.
He said that when a cabinet member at Westminster resigns his or her position “it is custom and practice that they are entitled to make an explanatory statement to Parliament.
“Few of us can forget the excoriating statement made by Sir Geoffrey Howe when he parted company with Mrs Thatcher.
“I have no such illusions of grandeur, but feel that the reasons for my resignation as chair of audit and accounts in the middle of a major investigation are worth clarifying to you all”.
Cllr Shellens has chaired the audit and accounts committee for the best part of eight years “and during which time we have a number of sensitive issues.
“In my view, entirely appropriately, this council allowed the full discussion at A & A and conclusions.
“Indeed, the reports themselves were under the full glare of publicity; Cambridge Central Library, Ely By-Pass, FACT/HACT AND ESACT a.k.a. community transport, safer recruitment in schools, and others”.
He said chief executive Gillian Beasley had repeatedly expressed the view that whilst other organisations may attempt to sweep such matters under the carpet, “we, in this county, prefer to investigate in public.
“If we have been found wanting in certain aspects, we acknowledge them, identify what needs to be done, do it and make sure that it is seen to be done.
“This approach has my full support. We are public servants; the public has the right to know”.
Cllr Shellens said that regarding the reference of Manor Farm to audit and accounts, the first part of the report two weeks ago was heard in public and is still available on You Tube.
It discussed matters of policy and performance of the in-house county farms. Some 31 recommendations emerged.
“The chief executive has said that these will be followed up as usual and, where changes are needed, they will be made,” he said. “All in public. All that is as it should be.
“However, the remainder of the report was only discussed after a vote was taken, ‘public or private’?
“To me this was a matter of significant public concern, the precipitate resignation of the tenant, Roger Hickford, deputy leader of the council, had stimulated widespread public speculation”.
Cllr Shellens said: “Why, if he had done nothing wrong had he resigned just a few short weeks before he was due to go anyway?
“Why did Steve Count, his boss and leader of the council, feel it right that Mr Hickford be no longer part of his team even for the last few weeks?
“Press comment had suggested there were allegations of bullying and rumours were circulating that the financial appropriateness of certain matters was in question, that the council should reclaim significant sums from the Manor Farm tenant.
“By then I had read the report. Some of the rumours that reached me wildly exaggerated the sums in question, but of course I could not quash them, it was all private”.
Cllr Shellens said: “These rumours simply won’t go away, however close to our individual and corporate chests evidence is held.
“The recommendation that any such matters should be referred to the monitoring officer would mean that the long grass would be at least six months long before anything emerged.
“Sanctions available, if any charges were judged proven, would be farcical, new training for a member who has already left the council?”
He said members were advised ahead of the audit and accounts committee by the council’s lawyers.
They gave “unequivocal stress to the point that there would be legal risk in discussing in public issues that dealt with the members’ code of conduct.
“In an effort to stifle any dissenting views they told us that we could become personally liable”.
Cllr Shellens added: “Well, I am always of the view that legal advice is interesting, but I make up my own mind.
“I had previously repeatedly given personal commitments that these, though difficult, matters should be given the widest exposure.
“I felt my position was hopelessly compromised were we to go in private session.
“I voted against going private but lost.”
He said he continued to believe that the issues in the 400 plus pages should be available to any who are interested.
The council broadcasts council meetings on You Tube, he said, and he understood that some 468 people were watching some part of the proceedings; almost five times audience the audience for a full council meeting.
“That says to me that there was much more interest on these matters amongst local people than for normal council meetings,” said Cllr Shellens.
“I may have made myself personally liable by this statement, but I decided that the reasons why I did what I did should be known.”