Local Lib Dems to face watchdog over ‘focus’ article

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Chandler’s Ford Parish Council are asking the local standards watchdog to investigate one of  their  own Councillors and the Deputy Leader of Eastleigh Borough Council over an article in the Lib Dem ‘Focus’ newsletter which claimed the Parish Council’s auditor backed the Lib Dems.

At a meeting of the Parish Council on Thursday, members also passed a motion calling on Cllr David Pragnall – who was not present – to apologise and to retract his remarks.

The Summer 2012 edition of Focus – published and promoted by Deputy Leader Anne Winstanley -contained an article entitled “Auditor backs Lib Dem Criticism’ .

The article reported remarks attributed to Cllr Pragnall which suggested the Parish Council had been criticised by the internal auditor for holding excessive reserves for reasons that ‘do not stand up to scrutiny” and went on to accuse the council of  financial “mismanagement” while in fact the external auditor had signed off the accounts  with the statement that:

“In our opinion the information in the annual return is in accordance with proper practices and no matters have come to our attention giving cause for concern that relevant legislation and regulatory requirements have not been met.”

During the meeting the Parish Council Chairman Cllr Margaret Atkinson read out a statement which explained that the reserves had been earmarked for forward spending plans and this explanation had been accepted by the auditor.

Cllr Atkinson also read a letter from the auditor concerned which stated:

“I object strongly to my reports being used for electioneering”.

Auditors are expected to be politically impartial.

During the debate Councillor Alan Broadhurst – only one of two  Lib Dems present – defended Cllr Pragnall’s ‘right to say that reserves are too high’ adding that he thought that Conservative councillors were being “hypersensitive”.

Councillor David Pragnall

Councillor David Pragnall

Labour Councillor Peter Luffman agreed with Cllr Broadhurst that Cllr Pragnall had a right to criticise the Parish Council’s reserve strategy but believed  he “ went over the top” by suggesting the auditor had supported Lib Dem views.

Cllr Luffman went on to say that:

“I thought at grass roots we are trying to represent local people – we are not elected here to play political games”.

Conservatives councillors were extremely critical of the absent councillor with one even calling  for his resignation.

Members said that the article misrepresented the council financial position and falsely implied that the council had been censured by the auditor for financial ‘mismanagement’ thereby bringing the council into disrepute – a breach of the code of conduct.

Furthermore it was argued that Cllr Pragnall’s article had ‘impinged on the integrity of the auditor’.

Around forty minutes of business time were spent debating the matter before a motion calling on Cllr Pragnall to apologise and rescind his comments was finally passed with just Cllr Broadhurst voting against and Cllr Luffman abstaining.

A second motion to refer both Cllrs Winstanley and Pragnall to the council’s Standards Monitoring Officer was also proposed.

During the debate Cllr Luffman said he thought if Cllr Pragnall was willing to apologise than no further action should be taken, however the vote was narrowly passed by just one vote.

The outspoken Lib Dem – who is also a Borough Councillor – found himself  in hot water last December over a previous article he had written in Focus which was also alleged to have brought the council into disrepute.

Cllr Pragnall has so far not responded to an invitation from Eastleigh News to comment on the matter.

Chandlers Ford Parish Council CHAIRMAN’S Statement 13_09_2012

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