PLANS for a public inquiry into the interests of councillors and their links to the voluntary and community sector have been confirmed at a cost of £20,000.
The four-week inquiry will be overseen by an independent person and the group leaders in Hartlepool will now set about “scouring the net” to see who is available.
It comes after a Peer Review report raised major concerns about the perception that some councillors act out of self-interest and the perceived lack of rigour around the declaration of interests of Hartlepool councillors.
Councillors stressed the inquiry is a good opportunity to set the record straight and quash any rumours or perceptions after the report into the running of Hartlepool Borough Council.
The plans were agreed at a meeting of the full council.
Members heard the cost of a public inquiry could have been anywhere between £12,000 and £75,000, depending on whether it was Queen’s Counsel or a former government agency advisor overseeing proceedings.
After a lengthy debate, councillors said there couldn’t be an “open cheque book” and agreed to cap the cost at £20,000.
Councillors were initially looking for a former senior local authority or monitoring officer to chair the inquiry, but that has not yet been agreed and a panel of councillors, including the group leaders and an independent councillor, will now meet to decide.
The Peer Review found the reputation and effective running of the local authority is being “badly damaged” and while there was praise for the council workforce and services, the conduct of some councillors and governance had been called into question.
It also included concerns over the transparency of the council’s commissioning and grant-funding arrangements for the voluntary and community sector, especially as there are strong links with some elected members.
Independent councillor Paul Thompson added: “Lets get this out in the open and prove there is nothing to be worried about.
“That is the only thing that can be done.”
Putting Hartlepool First group leader Geoff Lilley said the only option was a public inquiry with an independent chairman.
Labour group leader Christopher Akers-Belcher added: “It needs to be public, independent and within the confines of a restricted budget.”
He also called on anyone with actual evidence of wrongdoing to “put up or shut up”.
Meanwhile, Labour councillor Jonathan Brash also spoke in favour of the inquiry, but with a cap on the cost.
Independent councillor Keith Fisher, who abstained from the vote, said he was in favour of being prudent, but to “put a cap on it is dangerous” and said he wouldn’t support that.
Conservative group leader Ray Wells supported the public inquiry, but said a line would have to be drawn in the sand eventually as he was wary about spending taxpayers’ money.
Dave Stubbs, the council’s chief executive, added: “I firmly believe, as do other officers, that some sort of inquiry should be undertaken.
“The concerns and perceptions need to be laid to rest.”
No budget currently exists to cover the costs and the £20,000 will be taken from the positive outturn from last year’s budget.