Handling of Belfast Telegraph request for information about development led to unease among council staff and councillors
Northern Ireland’s most dysfunctional council has been ordered to respond to a Belfast Telegraph request for documentation or face High Court action within 35 days.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council ignored the Freedom of Information requests from this newspaper for months, flouting the law which says it must respond within 20 working days and leading to alarm among some staff and councillors as to why the public authority was so reluctant to release even basic details of a potentially lucrative development.
Last December, the Belfast Telegraph made two requests for information in relation to the council allocation of contracts for the redevelopment of sites in Glenarm. Nine days later, the council asked for clarification of the material sought, and agreed it was clear about what material had been requested.
However, since then, the council has consciously refused to release the information — or even to respond by saying that it is refusing to release it. In late January, a council source contacted us to say that the request had caused internal consternation.
The council has been in turmoil for months, with chief executive Anne Donaghy going off on long-term sick leave before being suspended in relation to allegations which she strenuously denies.
She is taking an industrial tribunal case against the council, as is Nicola Rowles, who had been acting chief executive. Another former acting chief executive, Philip Thompson, is on long-term sick leave.
A temporary chief executive costing £1,272 a day lasted just a matter of days.
This newspaper reminded the council of the requests on six occasions, without success. In February, a council employee said that the team which handled the requests was not there and made clear that she knew almost nothing about the request, asking for clarification which had been sent in December.
We wrote to Mr Thompson, then acting chief executive, to draw to his attention that the law was being broken. He replied three days later to apologise, pledging: “I will come back to you with a timeframe over the next few days.” But there has still been no response.
In late February, the council said it was considering the impact of legal professional privilege on the material, and it needed “additional time to pursue independent legal advice”. The council admitted it was already beyond the legal time limit but claimed that “independent legal advice is still pending”.
When asked if it was claiming that all the material about the redevelopment of the sites was covered by the provisions for legal advice, there was no response for two weeks.
Eventually, a council employee said: “We have been advised by senior management that the request in its entirety has been referred for independent legal advice.”
Since then, there has been no response. The Belfast Telegraph lodged an appeal with the Information Commissioner’s Office, which polices openness laws, and it has now ordered the public authority to respond.
In a seven-page decision notice, it said: “The commissioner is concerned that the council first extended the time to consider the public interest test, and later advised the complainant that it was seeking legal advice in respect of the request. Neither the Freedom of Information Act nor the Environmental Information Regulations permit public authorities to extend the time for compliance in order to seek legal advice in respect of a request.”
The commissioner said that the council had failed to comply with the law, saying that it must respond, and added: “The public authority must take these steps within 35 calendar days of the date of this decision notice. Failure to comply may result in the commissioner making written certification of this fact to the High Court pursuant to section 54 of FOIA and may be dealt with as a contempt of court.”
When asked why it had broken the law, the council said last night: “The processing of this specific Freedom of Information request experienced significant delay due to a number of factors. Final checks are now being carried out and the response will be released in the coming days.”