An MLA has slated a Northern Ireland council over its use of secret meetings and claimed elected rep’s challenging the “culture of confidentiality” have been threatened with legal action.
Former Newry, Mourne and Down District councillor Patrick Brown hit out at the local authority saying representatives face a “culture of confidentiality”.
The newly elected Alliance South Down MLA said: “The council is spending public money and it should be transparent about that, but worryingly it seems to be going out of its way to do the opposite.”
Patrick Brown was speaking about his experiences of being isolated in chambers when challenging decisions to hold debates behind closed doors.
He said: “There is a real fear of being reprimanded with threats of being reported to the ombudsman if anyone challenges going into confidential sessions.”
In the three months from March to May, NMDDC held almost 100 items of debate away from the public eye.
The council previously declined to answer a media Freedom of Information on the matter of confidential sessions, however it did point out its reasons for advice to councillors for debates.
It stated: “Confidential sessions can be held if information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person, including the council holding that information is being discussed and therefore the public may, by resolution, be excluded during this item of business.”
When an item falls into these parameters, councillors are asked to propose and second the proposal in order to go into confidential session. Only two of the 41 councillors on NMDDC are required to do so.
Though, at this point all councillors have the ability to speak out against such a move for the record.
However, Mr Brown, who served on the NMDDC for eights years, says he felt a culture of confidentiality disincentivised anyone to speak out.
He added: “Many councillors are not willing to challenge the legal advice that is brought into the chambers from the management.
“In all the years that I was on the council I have witnessed the items of debate going into confidential sessions increasing.
“I myself was reported to the ombudsman for speaking out against them.
“The council even went as far as having a legal adviser sitting in on council strategy, policy and resources committee sessions in case anyone thinks to step out of line against the confidential advice.
“Some councillors are both concerned for themselves of what is being said and of what is made known to people by the council themselves, as the sessions are closed to the media who report to the public.
“I have in the past called for video recording of meetings and audio recordings of planning committee, which I believe should be in place as due diligence.
“The council is spending public money and it should be transparent about that, but worryingly it seems to be going out of its way to do the opposite.
“When I was on the council I, together with independent councillors, challenged many of the actions being brought into confidential session.
“It is not a very nice place to be in, it is very isolating and you face a wall of verbal abuse that you are only acting up to gain press attention or political gain as well as the vitriol from management and other councillors.
“So, it works on many others to disincentivise them from fighting against sessions going into confidential sittings.”
Newry City is currently in line for some large scale regeneration projects, including the Albert Basin public park development, but the issue is regularly debated behind closed doors.
Mr Brown added: “There is a real problem with the Newry City Centre regeneration plan, which encompasses the civic corporate plans for a new £20m council headquarters, which is neither wanted or needed in Newry.
“They have recently agreed to keep the parking space for the nearby Cathedral, but will continue with the civic centre located beside the parking.
“So, there may be an option for underground parking at a massive cost at something like £10m.
“To put this into the public interest, every half a million pounds spent can increase the rates and at a rough estimate that could be by 52% over the term of the payment of the civic centre.
“The last quote I received earlier this year for the new headquarters was £26.2m.
“On one hand we have the civic centre , which most people do not want and it is gaining a lot of movement compared to the Albert Basin public park project, which most people want and it is not getting the attention it deserves.
“Management has also been having meetings with just the leaders of political parties.
“A party on the council is defined as having three or more members.
“As Alliance, we did not, so we came together with independents to form a group, but we were rejected from being allowed to attend the meetings.
“That is 20% of councillors and their constituents not being represented at these meetings, where matters are being discussed and perhaps agreed on before the chamber is allowed to debate on them.
“These meetings are neither properly minuted or recorded. We are out on our own.”