Councillors have been accused of showing “contempt” for open government after barring a regional daily from a meeting about the finances of a council-run energy firm.
Council members voted to exclude the Nottingham Post from the meeting about the financial situation at Nottingham City Council-owned Robin Hood Energy on the grounds that they wanted to ask questions which were “commercially sensitive.”
According to the council’s auditors, the company already owed the council around £40m in unpaid loands and a decision needed to be taken on whether it could continue trading.
The Post’s Post local democracy reporter Kit Sandeman later discovered that, at the meeting from which he had been excluded, the council had agreed to lend the company another £9.5m.
Before the meeting, a joint bid had been submitted to the council’s audit committee from the Post and its Nottinghamshire Live sister website, BBC Nottingham and the Local Democracy Reporting Service to allow them to report on it.
However, all five Labour councillors on the audit committee voted to exclude press and public – with its sole Tory member opposing the idea.
Mike Sassi, pictured, editor of the Post and Norttinghamshire Live, told HTFP: “This is a big, big issue for local taxpayers. Independent auditors have said that there are doubts whether Robin Hood Energy – which was set up by Nottingham City Council and has subsequently received more than £40m of local taxpayers’ money – can continue trading.
“But city councillors have chosen to discuss the issue behind closed doors. Their lack of transparency – and contempt for open government – is breath-taking.
“When we – together with the BBC in Nottingham and our local democracy reporter Kit Sandeman – challenged their secrecy they said that commercial considerations prevented them from allowing anyone else into their meeting.
“Kit later found out that the council has now loaned Robin Hood Energy another £9.5m.”
The joint request from the media organisations had stated that since public money had been invested in the company, the public had a right to all the information it can be given about it.
“Many Nottingham residents not directly involved in the company are essentially investors in it, as public money has been used for the project,” it said.
But Labour councillor Michael Edwards told the meeting “When we come to talk about Robin Hood Energy I will want to ask questions which are commercially sensitive, and I want to do that in an environment that’s secure.
“To question Robin Hood Energy without paperwork in a public forum limits severely the questions I can ask. Because I will then have to wonder whether seeking an answer to that question actually commercially threatens the future of Robin Hood Energy, and I’m not prepared to take that kind of risk.