OPINION: Mike Barnes
Today it has been revealed that a request for information over the botched closure of the Dimensions Splash Pool that the Information Commissioner has ruled that the council can keep the emails and correspondence between the City Council and Dimensions competitor Waterworld secret.
A victory for this secretive and inept council is a damning blow to openness, transparency and democracy in Stoke-on-Trent.
Requests under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act for copies of all correspondence between the businessman, Mo Chaudry, his representatives and Stoke-on-Trent City Council between 2007 and 2011 were turned down by the authority – even though it confirmed it does hold the records.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which oversees public bodies’ legal obligations under FOI, has turned down the request and sided with the council.
The council said it was exempt from releasing the information as publishing it would waive a confidentiality clause agreed with the WaterWorld owner when it paid him £21,850 to drop a legal threat.
City council monitoring officer Paul Hackney also ruled that
‘disclosure of the information would be likely to prejudice the authority’s ability to meet its wider objectives due to the disruption caused by disclosure, and the diversion of resources in managing the impact of disclosure.”
The ICO ruled the council had used the FOI Act’s exemptions legally, meaning the documents can now remain secret and beyond the reach of the taxpayers.
In effect council’s like Stoke can buy their way out of their obligation to be open and transparent.
Remember this was all done under a man, John van der Laarschot, who’s first promise upon taking his £220,000 a year post as CEO, was to be open and transparent. What a joke.
Councillor Dave Conway, leader of the opposition City Independents, campaigned against the original Dimensions closure plan and fought for details behind the fiasco to be made public. He said in the Sentinel:
“This is public money. I can’t understand how it isn’t in the public interest to release it. There is a danger people will lose faith in the ICO because they’ve just gone along with the council.”
The ICO agreed that breaching the confidentiality clause could give rise to a new legal challenge and that this means there is public interest in keeping it secret.
The ICO judgment states:
“The council argues that, as mediation is a substantially less expensive alternative to litigation, there is a strong public interest in favour of maintaining the council’s ability to use this process now and in the future. The commissioner accepts this is a valid argument.”
Mr Chaudry, who was arrested but not charged over allegations of corruption, along with the Labour Elected Mayor, Mark Meredith and Roger Ibbs, also in the Sentinel, said:
“I have never had any issue with information being made public because the basis of my challenge was that I wanted to clear my name. As far as I’m concerned the matter is done and dusted.”
Chaudry tries to claim to be the innocent in all this – no issue with the information being made public? Clear your name? – then why take the Kings Shilling and sign to keep it secret? Money talks eh?
Done and dusted Mr Chaudry? Some may love it to be so.
It ain’t over until the fat lady sings, and my sources tell me that she ain’t started yet.
Watch this space.
P.S. What happened to the £5m olympic pool extension the council raved about 12 months ago?