MORAY’S COUNCIL ADMINISTRATION was thrown into chaos yesterday when the leader of the council, Stewart Cree, vowed to report himself to the Standards Commission.
Councillor Cree made the pledge during a meeting of the economic development and infrastructure services committee following a heated exchange between the committee chair, Councillor John Cowe, and Fochabers/Lhanbryde councillor, Douglas Ross.
When the committee were asked to approve increased costs of the Elgin Western Link Road and refer the matter back to the Full Council, Councillor Ross challenged the ruling administration group members on their failure to declare a “group interest” in the plan and disqualify themselves from the vote.
The challenge came after the committee chairman said that there had been no group decision to support the road plans – prompting Councillor Ross to produce an email he had obtained a copy of, in which Councillor Cree had written to all Tory and independent administration group members.
In that, Councillor Cree referred to an administration group meeting, saying: “At today’s meeting I undertook to forward the above report for members’ information. I also agreed to check with all members of ED&I (Allan excepted) to confirm their continued support for the Western Link Route as this is to come before ED&I next week.
“Any member of ED&I who foresees any difficulty in supporting this should contact me at the earliest opportunity.”
Councillor Ross said that amounted to a prior decision which the administration group had failed to declare to the committee. Following the meeting he said: “Today’s meeting was unfortunately typical of any discussions we have on the Western Link Road when administration members are chairing the meeting.
“We had the strange situation where the recommendations were proposed before there was any discussion – and then the chair tried to prevent any questioning on the report. Given there have been changes to the proposals and millions of pounds added to the potential costs of the road it was unacceptable that any councillor or officer should try to suppress the questioning on this important topic.
“However, the meeting did reveal the Administration group led by Independent Councillors have taken a view on this road and I feel they should be prevented from voting on this matter in the future.”
The renegade former administration group member was chair of the planning services committee that had rejected the link road bid earlier this year – he was subsequently removed from the administration group when he later opposed another administration group plan over management of Moray’s schools, and remains a ‘non-aligned’ member of the council.
Councillor Ross said that it was “very clear from the email” that the leader of the council wished to ensure there were enough votes in the committee to push the issue through – adding that Councillor Cree was also clearly concerned about his own conduct that he was now referring himself to the Standards Commissioner for further investigation of the issue.
Councillor Ross added: “We are always told the safest thing to do when there could be a perception of a group decision or a personal interest is to declare it. Councillor Leadbitter has never taken part in any debate on the Western Link Road as a relative lives close to the proposed route.
“If that is deemed a potential conflict stopping someone debating and voting on the issue, then it must surely be the same for an entire group of councillors who had agreed how they were going to vote on a paper a full day before the committee report was published for all councillors to consider the information.”
There was a period of chaos during the meeting when the chairman called a five-minute recess to allow legal discussion to take place over the issue.
However, Councillor Ross said that the legal advisor “seemed more concerned about the timing of my intervention rather than the information I was sharing with the committee”.
He added: “I hope we can look at the procedures in future as the reaction of some officers seemed over the top, bordering on hysterical. It confirmed to me there is a strong will amongst council officers to see the road pushed through regardless.
“At the end of the day there was a vote and all my queries regarding a group decision could have been dismissed if just one administration member voted against the road progressing.
“Given the fact that they all voted to progress with the road, I will leave it up to the public to decide if they are satisfied that there was no group decision by the independent councillors to support the Western Link Road.”