The other thing is of course secrecy. Despite the claims of Council leader Clive Hart that the Council is open and transparent the truth is TDC has a culture of secrecy reminiscent of the Cold War Soviet Politbureau. Virtually every document I have asked for about Transeuropa, for example, has been refused by the Council's Monitoring Officer and Head of Regulatory Services, Harvey Patterson for what I believe to be extremely spurious reasons.
Much more sinister is the way in which senior council officers and their political bosses in the Cabinet manipulate the Council's constitution to keep important issues secret from back bench councillors and the public. The secret Transeuropa £3.4 million debt is a prime example of this undemocratic culture which seems to be gripping the Council. Its often been said that without openness and transparency, and an ability to learn from mistakes, bad practice and corruption thrive. Shame Thanet Council has ignored this advice!
There is no doubt about it, a lack of financial due diligence, a regime of secrecy and what some staff have described to me as, institutional bullying by bosses and politicians, have turned Thanet District Council into a thoroughly dysfunctional organisation which has brought itself into massive public disrepute.
So what's the solution? Well the election of councillors who are committed to openness and transparency in 2015 who will transform the Council into an accountable and listening organisation would be a good start. But in the meantime there needs to be some major changes in the management structure at TDC.
First of all why is the Council's Chief Executive, Sue McGonigal also moonlighting as the Chief Financial Officer? Holding down 2 jobs sometimes means that instead of doing one job well, two jobs are done badly, which might explain some of the issues I have raised about financial due diligence and secrecy.
Also one person holding down the 2 most senior jobs at the Council makes that person far too powerful and undermines the checks and balances which must be there to prevent one person dominating an organisation. Last but not least, being in charge of the Council's finances and also it strategic development can be a recipe for conflicts of interests which might possibly harm the Council. This is why most Council's do not combine the posts of Chief Executive and Head of Finance.
Interestingly, CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) the well respected organisation which speaks on behalf of Council Finance bosses said in their publication "The Role of the Chief Financial Officer in Local Government that
"There is a growing trend for CFOs to hold a range of different responsibilities beyond finance, including managing other services or leading change programmes. Whilst these can develop the individual as a corporate manager, authorities must not let the CFO’s core financial responsibilities be compromised through creating too wide a portfolio. Dilution and/or overload in the role of the CFO can result in poor financial outcomes for the authority. Setting out the core CFO responsibilities in this Statement is intended to allow local authorities and their CFOs to assess their job descriptions to ensure that their core finance responsibilities can be properly performed".
Next there needs to be a careful examination of the role of the Council's Monitoring Officer and Head of Regulatory Services. The Monitoring Officer is charged with ensuring that the Council's decision making processes comply with its Constitution and the law of the land.
Sadly evidence suggests especially with regard to TransEuropa and issues about openness, transparency and accountability, that the Council's constitutional rules are not always properly applied and that legal requirements are not always observed. I have raised my concerns with the District Auditor, the Chief Executive and the Local Government Association and will continue to complain about and expose abuse of process whenever I encounter it.
I also think that the current set up in which the Monitoring Officer is also the Head of Regulatory Services is wrong . Just like the case of the Chief Executive, we have the possibility of 2 jobs being done badly rather than one being done well, which could again explain why TDCs constitutional and legal framework might sometimes not be the highest priority. In fact I would go so far as saying that the role of Monitoring Officer is so important that the post holder should do nothing else. Thanet being a relatively small Council means that the post could be part-time or perhaps shared with a neighbouring Council.
So there we have it. To improve Thanet's record on the effective monitoring of external organisations and improving its record on openness, transparency and accountability we need an urgent review of the role and functions of the Chief Executive and the Monitoring Officer. Radical changes and a more focused approach at the top might well percolate down the ranks and make TDC an organisation fit for purpose which commands more respect than it does at the moment.
One final thought, even if these changes happen I do not personally believe that TDC is sustainable in the long run. There needs to be a debate about reviewing local government in East Kent which, in my view, might mean the setting up of an East Kent Coast Unitary Council independent of KCC. But that's for another time.