An editor has slammed a council’s “inconsistency and lack of transparency” after a local democracy reporter was barred from a conduct hearing.
Carmelo Garcia, who is employed by the BBC and Hereford Times under the scheme, was excluded from a meeting of Herefordshire Council’s standards panel which concerned county councillor Jim Kenyon.
The panel later readmitted Carmelo for a separate hearing taking place on the same day, which concerned Cradley Parish Council chairman Geoff Fielding, prompting the Times to accuse the authority of “double standards”.
Councillor Kenyon had himself informed the Times that his hearing was taking place, but county councillor Ellie Chowns and Herefordshire Association of Local Councils representative Robert Wilson overruled panel chairman Chris Chappell’s view that the meeting should be held in public.
Cllr Chowns said: “My view in principle is that we should consider matters openly and transparently as far as possible, but I understand that needs to be weighed against the principle of innocent until proven guilty in code of conduct matters.
“Therefore, it would seem to be fair that an appeal is permitted to take place in private. The important thing is that the judgement whichever way it goes should be communicated publicly.”
Cllr Chappell responded: “I would prefer for the meeting to be open all the time, but I bow to the majority view, so the meeting will be held in private session.”
The hearing involving Cllr Fielding was held in public after Cllr Chowns was replaced on the panel by Cllr John Stone, who agreed with the chairman’s suggestion that it should be held in public.
Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Kenyon told the Times he “could not understand” why his hearing was held in private.
Times editor John Wilson told HTFP: “This sort of inconsistency and lack of transparency undermines people’s faith in local democracy.
“Councillors in Herefordshire, and perhaps elsewhere, are too quick to rifle through their rule book to find any excuse they can to keep code of conduct inquiries hidden from public scrutiny.
“The fact is that when discussing individuals they are required to balance confidentiality considerations with the public interest. Yet the public interest is too often given short shrift.
“Fortunately, local papers like ours are now benefiting from the Local News Partnership with the BBC, which funds local democracy reporters like our own Carmelo Garcia, who is doing such an excellent job of calling out secrecy in our town halls.”
A Herefordshire Council spokeswoman said: “It is perfectly normal and legal for local authority hearings to be discussed in private if a committee decides that this is how they wish to carry out the proceedings. The process is covered in great detail in Herefordshire Council’s Constitution (Access to Information Rules, part 4, section 2).
“Representatives from the media are aware of this process and we thank the majority of the journalists that respect the council’s decisions to discuss some matters in private due to the nature of the business.”