Legal row interrupts council debate
A Caistor Town Council discussion about empty properties was interrupted last Thursday (January 14, 2016) by a legal challenge about public access to documents.
As the discussion began, each councillor appeared to be holding and referring to a list of properties that was to be forwarded to West Lindsey District Council.
The move was intended to lobby for improvements to empty buildings, “or those that required action”.
The discussion was interrupted by the Citizen to ask if copies would be circulated to the four members of the public present at the meeting.
A heated discussion began over whether the public had a right to see the list, and whether the Citizen had a right to interrupt proceedings to make a legal challenge under the council’s standing orders, which normally prohibit the public from speaking while the meeting is taking place.
The Citizen believes the public has the right to see any supporting document during a council discussion that is open to the press and public. Legal challenges can be made at the time that the council is acting beyond its authority.
Town Clerk Helen Pitman said the public could request to see a copy of the list, if it was ratified by the town council.
Cllr Steve Millson proposed the council ratify the list, which was agreed. He handed over a copy, which was passed between the public present.
The legal challenge, and the rush to ratify the list, did not allow the councillors an opportunity to debate in detail each property.
It was the Citizen’s contention that the list should either have been discussed when the press and public were not present, or made public at the same time as the council’s agenda, which would have allowed the property owners to explain background information to the councillors during the public forum. For example, relevant issues could have been probate, insolvency, disputes over ownership, divorce proceedings or long-term illness.
There were some surprising inclusions on the list, including some sites where businesses have closed in the past year. Most of these premises are in a reasonable state of repair.
However, there is one property on the list that has almost certainly been mistaken for a different address. The property is occupied and its exterior was repainted during the summer. It is immaculately kept.
It is hard to see how this could have happened, unless the town council did not write to all the addresses before compiling the list.
This has led to a dilemma of whether to publish an article at all, to publish and include the list, or to publish and not include the list.
If no article is published, this could easily be misconstrued among the other members of the public who attended the meeting. They might believe the Citizen colluded or was persuaded to keep quiet.
Probably most owners who maintain their properties would be upset if the district council were contacted regarding the state of their building, even when it is obvious a mistake has been made. However, they would probably be even more upset if they learned about it through a third party.
From a legal viewpoint, all of the list should be published, or none of it. The Citizen does not believe it can pick and choose properties from the list.
The Citizen has decided not to publish the list and to write to the town council to point out the suspected error.
Image: legislation relating to local council procedure