Aberdeen City Council really just can’t seem to keep itself out of the headlines these days can it? Even for an organisation well used to attracting controversy, July is shaping up to be quite some month – last week we saw the Blundergate, Boilergate, Briefgate and Buffetgate stories come to light and if the council think that these will have blown over by the end of the Trades Fortnight they may well be in for a shock.
Having initially succeeded in keeping lots of information about the City Square Project (re-branded City Garden Project after a humiliating – and no doubt expensive – PR faux pas in 2010) out of the public eye a series of FoI requests appear to have forced the council into belatedly making some details of the meetings of the City Garden Project Monitoring Group (CGPMG) public. Minutes and related documents for the March, April and May 2011 meetings duly appeared on the Council website in a redacted form … well a supposedly redacted form anyway (more of which later).
Now most city administrations should have been able to pull off pulling the wool over the public’s eyes without raising a fuss but … yes, you’ve guessed it … THIS IS ABERDEEN and things don’t always happen as expected.
With the redacted minutes on the website, questions were being asked and the Press & Journal of 6th July carried a piece titled New Leader asks: Why blank out members’ names in minutes? in which Councillor Callum McCaig is quoted as saying “It’s most unusual to see council minutes with information blacked out in this regard” …. “I have absolutely no idea why this is the case and have no recollection of such a decision being taken” … “As such I have written to the chief executive asking why this has been done and when the decision was taken“.
On the face of it a positive start for Cllr. McCaig – although as council leader he should surely have been “in the loop” on this project beforehand, no? Strange that after this initial piece the P&J don’t seem to have covered this at all. No time to ponder questions like this though as things started to go downhill rapidly and the ever vigilant OtherAberdeen blog led the way with Bizarre Opaque Transparency from Aberdeen City Council a stunning expose of just how much of a blunder this had been.
Those involved with the City Garden Project possibly thought things would blow over but they were wrong as on 7th July a real hammer blow came when STV Aberdeen broke the story big time revealing the bungled attempts to hide information from the public in Council fails to conceal minutes from Union Terrace Gardens meetings.
The 8th July issue of the Aberdeen Voice featured a superb Cloak And Dagger Special which covers the whole sordid affair.
Without fanfare or apology, the unredacted minutes of the meetings finally appeared on the council website and are now available for the public to read. Public dissection of these documents will continue and there are already growing calls for greater public scrutiny of all aspects of the City Garden Project.
It is interesting that the minutes of 20th May carry an apology from ‘Councillor’ Scott Cassie. In April 2011, facing court proceedings on embezzlement charges, Scott Cassie resigned from the council before pleading guilty to the charges on 28th April. In fact on 19th May 2011, the very day before the CGPMG meeting from which his apology for absence is minuted, Mr. Cassie was in Aberdeen Sheriff Court where he was sentenced to a year in jail for embezzlement. The BBC report that after handing down his sentence, Sheriff Edward Savage said “the public expected the highest degree of honesty and probity in elected representatives – You betrayed that trust. It was a serious breach of trust, and the public interest must be protected.“
Nothing to see here, no need to mention this in AOCB, no need to propose a replacement. That’s all OK then 😉
While the above was happening, there was trouble with a dodgy boiler as the P&J of 6th July informed the public that ‘An Aberdeen councillor and self-employed plumber who is not allowed to work with gas was “involved” in fitting a new boiler at an MSP’s flat … Councillor Hunter was at the centre of an inquiry into allegations that he used falsified documents to show he was qualified to work with gas‘. Gas fitting regulations exist for public safety and in Aberdeen, the self-styled “energy capital of Europe“, of all places health and safety should be taken seriously at work and at home.
The CGPMG documents show that it was always the intention to present a design brief for approval by Aberdeen City Council on 29th June 2011. This was apparently not done, so the full Council have not had the opportunity to approve any such design brief, giving the impression that the Council have lost control of the whole process and are mere passengers. These issues are eloquently presented in an Open Letter to Councillors from Mike Shepherd which appeared in the Aberdeen Voice and, in edited form as “Losing Control” in the letters pages of The Scotsman on 8th July.
Here, we will simply present some quotes from the CGPMG documents, in which we highlight choice content.
CGPMG Minutes 22nd March 2011
“Mr. Brough confirmed that;
The Competition Brief will be approved by the Project Management Board, then submitted to Council for approval, before being issued. It is anticipated that this approval will be sought at the Council’s 29th June meeting.”
CGPMG Monthly Report April 2011 :
“The Design Brief will be submitted to the Aberdeen City Council meeting on 29th June 2011, for endorsement, before it is issued to the short-listed companies“.
CGPMG Monthly Report May 2011 :
“Schedule of key meetings and competition deadlines below;
29th June Council Meeting Brief sign-off “
On 8th July it emerged that the Lord Provost wanted to spend £4,000 from the Common Good Fund on a buffet for his chums attending the unveiling of a portrait of himself for which £10,000 had already been allocated from the Common Good. Now we all know that the LP likes a bit of bling – you’ve seen the gold chain and fur collar – and he billed the taxpayers for £10,000 worth of clothes and we’ve noted in the past how the civic car is funded from Common Good. The LP is quoted in the Evening Express of 8th July as saying “the buffet was a way to repay city backers during his five years in post … numerous people have given their loyalty and support and it is a way of saying thank you … these are citizens and companies who do much for our city, and it all feeds in“.
It will be interesting to see who is on the guest list next June.
No doubt we will hear much about how this is all fine and that the Common Good fund is being used to “uphold the civic dignity“. We are Moved to Comment that perhaps civic dignity is not measured by the size of your limousine, by how shiny your brogues are or by how much you spend on a buffet or portrait of the civic leader. Perhaps better metrics of civic dignity are how a city looks after its citizens in time of need – perhaps citizens should consider whether the earnings from their Common Good should be used to lavish luxury on a political elite or actually used to give a helping hand to the citizens who need it most when times are tough.
So there you have it – Blundergate, Boilergate, Briefgate and Buffetgate – wonder what the next scandal to emerge for the corridors of power in the Granite City will be?