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Withiel Parish Councillors have voted to pay more than £1,000 out of their own pockets after questions were raised about the way in which Parish finances had been handled during 2012.
At a fractious and bad-tempered meeting on December 12th, the council was asked how it was that procedures for the disbursement of money had not been followed, with the result that the Parish had effectively been rendered broke, with no money left to pay the clerk’s wages or for any other expenditure for the rest of the fiscal year.
The issue was raised by the former Deputy Chairman of the Parish Council, Richard Thomas, during the first part of the council meeting, at which members of the public are permitted to speak. He said expenditures had been made without regard to the processes required for handling public money, which included the advertising of work and invitations to tender, and proper regard for budget procedures. Who, he asked, was responsible, and how did the council intend to meet its bills in the coming months.
He was rounded on by parish councillor David Hore, who said the money was for work that had not been done while Mr Thomas was on the council. Mr Thomas said this was because there had been insufficient money in the budget to pay for it, a situation which did not seem to have changed. What the money had been spent on was peripheral (it was in fact for work erecting stiles on footpaths) – the questions concerned irregularities in dealing with public money. How, he asked again, did the council intend to pay its bills up to the end of the financial year?
The Chairman, John Piper, said a meeting had been arranged with the Cornwall Association of Local Councils to find out whether money could be borrowed. These borrowings could be added to next year’s council tax. Another member of the public, Patrick Malone, said that while borrowing money might keep the parish council functioning, it wouldn’t answer the basic question of why the checks and balances put in place to protect public funds had apparently been circumvented.
Mr Piper then began the official business of the meeting, which meant the public could no longer speak. After the agenda for the previous meeting had been agreed, Mike Biddick proposed that councillors themselves club together to pay the sum of £1,095 which appeared to have been paid in irregular circumstances. They would then personally own the stiles, and they could be ripped out.
Councillor Nick Mather asked whether the money had actually left the Parish Council’s account. Mr Piper said that while the cheque had been written and handed over, the bank had declined to accept it because there was something wrong with the signatures. Mr Mather then supported Mr Biddick’s proposal. That way, he said, the parish would not have lost any money. The councillors voted unanimously to pay the £1,095 themselves and have the stiles ripped out.
In the public seats, it was said that ripping out the stiles was an act of petulance which completely missed the point. When he stood up to say that the matter at issue was how public funds could be handled in a cavalier fashion without following statutory processes for their protection, Mr Malone was shouted down by the chairman because the public were not allowed to speak.
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