TAXPAYERS have the ‘right to know how big the bill is and why they have got to pay it’.
That was the message from a veteran councillor last night, as he called for Worthing Borough Council to scrap the use of controversial ‘gagging orders’ to settle future legal disputes.
Tarring councillor Tom Wye resigned in protest over a confidentiality clause used in the NCP contract saga in 2014, only to return to the council chamber last year.
Presenting a motion to councillors, seconded by leader Dan Humphreys, he said: “I have experienced two such gagging orders in my time as a councillor and I have to say the sour taste is still in my mouth from both.
“You owe it to the residents of Worthing. They deserve it and I think they have the right to know how big the bill is and why they have got to pay it.
“Please remember there is no such thing as council money, it is all their money.”
Confidentiality clauses prevent details of a legal settlement being publicly revealed.
In the NCP case, it meant the sum paid by the council to the parking giants – believed to be around £800,000 – was never officially confirmed.
Mr Wye said it was ‘undemocratic’ to allow council officers, who were not elected by the public, to use such clauses.
But while several members of the joint governance committee agreed with Mr Wye’s principles, many were unsure whether scrapping the option of future gagging orders was practical.
Current council procedure allows the chief executive to take urgent action to ‘prevent damage to life, limb, infrastructure or the financial integrity of the councils’, in consultation with the leader.
Former leader Paul Yallop suggested the procedure should be amended, with urgent action requiring written permission from the leader and leader of the opposition.
Councillor Michael Cloake said this would ‘put power back into the hands of members’.
He said; “I’m terribly conflicted by this because I fundamentally agree with the principle of the motion.
“I think transparency is the key thing all councillors should have in anything they do.
“My problem with the motion is really from my private life as a director of business, about the idea of binding us to a rule before we know what situation we take ourselves into.”
Mr Yallop’s amendment will be debated by full council next month.
Adur District Council will also consider the motion, due to the complexities of the partnership between the councils.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Wye said he was ‘bitterly disappointed’ councillors chose not to scrap the clauses altogether.
He added: “They had an opportunity to do something really positive and maybe other councils would copy it.
“I was grateful for Paul Yallop’s amendment.”