Belfast Telegraph

Parties at odds over council audit report

AN Audit Office report critical of Castlereagh Borough Council has been dismissed as a "storm in a teacup".

But the Alliance councillor who complained about the party political representation of its management team said the findings of the report have vindicated his concerns.

The Alliance Party's Michael Long claimed the decision to allow a DUP member a seat on its management team for the past 16 years gave it a party political advantage over the local authority's other elected representatives.

The spending watchdog said the move was not normal practice and could lead to misunderstandings or "perceived conflicts of interest".

Mr Long said the election of a council member on to the team was never brought before the council for a vote.

He said there has been a DUP councillor on Castlereagh council's special management team for 16 years with First Minister Peter Robinson, a former councillor, the first DUP member to take the role in 1997.

Mr Robinson was succeeded by several other DUP members, including Mr Robinson's son Gareth and the MLA Jimmy Spratt.

The Alliance councillor said he only learned the practice was continuing in 2010 and that his motion to stop it was defeated by the DUP and Ulster Unionist councillors in March 2011.

Mr Long said it was "wholly inappropriate" that a single party provides the political input into a body giving leadership direction.

"This Audit Office report has vindicated the Alliance Party's concerns over the DUP's involvement in Castlereagh Council management team," he said.

"I believe this arrangement is wholly inappropriate as it may give the DUP an unfair advantage as this committee shapes a lot of the council business.

"This report has raised questions about the lack of openness and transparency of this body."

When the Audit office first looked at the issue it noted that while it was unusual, it had been approved by the council.

But following Mr Long's assertion that he could only access the minutes of the meetings through a Freedom of Information request, the spending watchdog agreed to assess it once more, describing the arrangement as causing a "lack of transparency".

It suggested in its report that the council reviews the issues and to draw up terms of reference.

It also called for management to consider publishing minutes of the meetings, as is the case for many public bodies.

But describing the issue as a "storm in a teacup", the DUP's leader on the council, Jim White, said the post came before the council's annual general meeting, to which every council and the public were privy to. "It could be any member," said the former council chief executive. "If there's anything to do with staff or with tenders or anything then the councillor leaves the meeting."

The council has agreed to make minutes of senior management meetings available to all elected members.

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