COUNCIL OFFICERS WERE slammed by opposition group councillors at Wednesday’s Full Council meeting when a decision taken just two months ago was reversed on a procedural judgement.
In March an SNP proposal that £42,000 be spent on making improvements to the B9016 route between Keith and Buckie should not be dropped from the Capital Plan.
The opposition group argued that the cash would take further improvements on the troubled route to a ‘shovel ready’ status and speed up any future decision to progress.
However, the decision was brought back to the Council by officials, with the Corporate Services director Mark Palmer saying after the decision was taken it transpired that some councillors had “no common understanding” of the decision they had taken.
Mr Palmer said: “Since phase one is restricted to the purchase of land and design work associated with the project, there is a significant risk that such expenditure could be abortive.
“It is clear that the council is not in a position to commit to the road improvements and until it is in such a position it should not commit to potentially abortive costs of £42,000.”
At the opening of the debate on the issue, Mr Palmer admitted that it was remiss of him not to seek clarification in respect of works on the road, adding that his earlier interpretation in respect of the £42,000 spend was incorrect. He added that when officers involved were spoken to it revealed a disparity and guidance was sought.
During the debate that followed, SNP councillors insisted that officials had created a “dangerous precedent” by bringing the issue back to the chamber without a suspension of standing orders – a claim that was dismissed by the Convener, Councillor Allan Wright.
Most outspoken was Buckie councillor Gordon McDonald, who said: “I am surprised as the paper [in March] made it clear on what was being proposed. The information was there – but now we are being told that after Mr Palmer had spoken to those who voted against it, they did not know what they were voting for.”
Councillor McDonald questioned just how officers could override standing orders – but when he implied possible impropriety on the part of Mr Palmer he was immediately censured by the Convener.
In the debate Councillor Douglas Ross said that he hoped “in the cold light of day a review of the manner in which this issue came back to council is held”, adding that he shared the concerns raised – although admitted that he would vote against the spending as “in reality we would be buying land for a project that would not be delivered, so it would be wrong to do so”.
The leader of the SNP opposition group, Councillor Gary Coull, proposed that the spend on the road be added to the Capital Plan as passed in March – however, in the event his motion was defeated by 13 votes to 11.
During the heated exchange, SNP councillors clashed with Labour Fochabers/Lhanbryde member Sean Morton.
Councillor Morton, had had supported the original motion in March, said that he would oppose it this time as he had not fully understood was he was voting for as he had not had time to read the alternative budget proposals being put forward by the SNP.
That brought about angry exchanges with SNP members, who pointed out that in the very least Councillor Morton should have looked at an issue that was effecting his own ward.
Following the meeting, Councillor Morton defended his position, saying: “The SNP brought forward a series of proposals at a recent meeting without prior discussion with other political groups.
“That meant that we had to rely on what they told us on the day. Naturally I had a good understanding of the Buckie Keith road as a concept but I didn’t fully understand the SNP’s proposal.
“In fact, there were four or five interpretations of what they were proposing. It turned out that, as I said in the original meeting, we didn’t have all the information to hand. I couldn’t today vote for a proposal to buy a patch of land that we have no plans to do anything with when we are facing making serious cuts elsewhere.”
Meanwhile, the SNP group branded the local authority “dictatorial and undemocratic”.
In a statement released last night, Councillor McDonald said: “The Standing Orders of the Council is the fundamental rulebook that we work to. They are hugely important and govern the way that the Council makes its decisions. Most importantly they are fundamental to protecting democracy.
“Our argument is less about the actual decision, which is over a very small amount of money in comparison to the Council’s overall budget, but rather the undermining of the fundamental principles by which the Council operates. The complete disregard for the Council’s constitution is dictatorial and totally undemocratic.
“It creates a very unwelcome precedent that could allow Administrations and Council Officers to bring reports straight back to committee if they are unhappy with the original decision and want it changed.
“The undemocratic process that has been followed has seriously angered SNP councillors and soured what we felt, prior to this decision, was an improving relationship with senior Council Officers. The SNP are unanimous in their dissent to the way this issue has been dealt with.”