Ombudsman minutes withheld till probes finish

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Minutes of senior council members’ discussions on ongoing Northern Ireland Ombudsman investigations are to be withheld from the public until the conclusion of the probes.

As previously reported exclusively by the Larne Times. Larne Borough Council has received notification from the Ombudsman’s office of two separate complaints about procedures. The Larne Times is aware that one complaint relates to handling of the Ballygally community hall project and we understand that the other concerns a council competition seeking a partner for leisure development.

According to the Ombudsman’s guidelines, neither the local authority nor either complainant is permitted to speak publicly about the investigations and latest minutes published by Smiley Buildings this week reveal that members of the council’s policy and resources committee were not even allowed to discuss the probes.

It is left to the aldermen’s committee – which comprises the three aldermen and the mayor – to debate the Ombudsman investigations. What they are saying, however, we will not be told for some time, because on Monday night the full council adopted a recommendation that the official record of aldermen’s meetings held in November and December should not be published until after the probes have been concluded.

What we do know, from other council minutes that were released this week, is that during confidential session at the January monthly meeting of the full council, Mayor Gerardine Mulvenna stated that a response to correspondence from the Ombudsman had been submitted.

The elected members were told they could view the response, under supervision, by arrangement with officers.

Cllr Mulvenna also read out legal advice which was to the effect that “there should be no debate on the matter”.

It is minuted that chief executive Geraldine McGahey, together with directors Linda McCullough and Philip Thompson left the chamber.

Cllr Brian Dunn, who was first to ask questions in public about Ombudsman correspondence, is said to have recorded his concern at how the matter was being handled. Ald Winston Fulton learned that aldermen’s committee minutes which were to have been presented at the meeting were not available due to IT problems and power failure.

It was resolved that documents requested of the council by the Ombudsman’s office should be forwarded, with a caveat, the details of which are not minuted.

A blazing row erupted at Monday’s monthly meeting of Council between Cllr Dunn and Ald Jack McKee over guidelines on declaring an interest.

At issue was a minute of a policy and resources committee meeting on January 14, again held in confidential session.

After the council’s human resources manager “read out legal advice advising that there should be no debate on the subject matter” and confirmed that the minutes “would become public record on conclusion of the investigation”, it is recorded that Ald McKee asked for advice on whether or not a councillor could speak impartially on a case that was referred to the Ombudsman by a person who had nominated that councillor as an election candidate.

The minute adds that: “The alderman was informed of legal advice received in this regard and also a recommendation from Council’s legal team that any member having any interest in the matters to which the minutes referred should declare accordingly.”

However, at Monday’s monthly meeting, Cllr Dunn referred to the minute of Ald McKee’s query, claiming: “This is an attempt to smear me. Just because someone nominates you for election does not necessarily mean they will vote for you.”