Almost half of Thanet’s district councillors could face High Court action over refusal to declare ward vacant

Cllr Iris Johnston speaking at the meeting

An attempt by Thanet council officers to be able to declare the Margate Central ward vacant has again failed despite reports that some 26 councillors received emails saying they could face High Court action if a motion was not agreed.

At an extraordinary meeting of the council on Tuesday (November 6) councillors were asked to agree to authorise the Chief Executive to declare vacancies.

The move follows a failed attempt to approve a motion to declare the Margate Central ward vacant following the disqualification of Cllr Ian Venables at a meeting on October 15.

Thanet council’s legal officer Tim Howes told councillors the authority was “under a legal duty to declare the vacancy,” but councillors refused to back the motion with 27 voting against and just 13 voting in favour, with one abstention.

Ian Vanables with supporters outside the council office last month

The rebellion centres around whether Ian Venables was rightly disqualified from his councillor role after taking a post with new homelessness team RISE.

Thanet council says that means he is now indirectly employed by the authority and he has been disqualified under section 80(1)(a) of the Local Government Act 1972 with effect from 1 August 2018.

But there is dissatisfaction amongst councillors with the legal argument over whether Mr Venables had been rightly disqualified and the lack of information regarding legal advice to the council.

Local government rules meant the move to ask full council to approve the vacancy can not be repeated for 6 months. A by-election can also not be called within 6 months of a full election taking place – district councillors are due to go to the polls in May.

At the meeting this week councillors said they had received emails saying the could be taken to the High Court if the motion to allow the Chief Executive to declare the vacancy was not passed.

A report to councillors also stated passing the motion would mean: “This will avoid the artificial situation where council is asked to consider and debate an administrative provision whereas the law requires that the matter be agreed.

“A continued failure to declare a vacancy may lead to the publication of a report under section 5 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 and potential judicial review proceedings.”

Karen Constantine

Cllr Karen Constantine said: “I believe our democracy is being undermined here. I do not see how an unelected officer can make and implement a unilateral decision to declare a vacancy when that vacancy might have been called in error. And to have the temerity to request elected members to help clean up the mess I think is a disgrace.

I have been told by email that I could be taken to court for my legitimate vote and I think that is quite wrong.”

Thanet Independent Councillors group leader Stuart Piper also referred to the email, saying: “We have a bit of a problem because if we do not delegate the powers this evening those members who voted against the motion on October 15 apparently will be called to court to explain their actions as a result of a report having to be filed by the monitoring officer.”

Cllr Stuart Piper

Cllr Piper said the question was whether the power should be delegated or whether all councillors should have the relevant information and then make the decision.

Cllr Iris Johnston, who said she would vote against the move regardless, said proper procedure was not being followed and the issue should go to the constitutional working party, standards committee and the full council.

She added: “The purpose of a monitoring officer is to ensure lawfulness and fairness, what we have seen recently is anything but fair to the electorate of my ward (Margate Central).

This amendment was thrown together very quickly to scupper us. Giving such strong delegation powers to one officer, that could affect all 56 councillors as we would not know why someone was disqualified and we would not know why a vacancy was declared.”

Council leader Bob Bayford said: “I really don’t understand what all the fuss is about. If there is a disqualification or someone dies or doesn’t attend for six months or resigns then a vacancy is created.

“All that is happening here is that we are being asked to delegate to the Chief Executive the task of declaring that vacancy, not deciding whether there isa vacancy.

“To me it is a simple administrative, legally required action that sensibly just gets carried out automatically.”

The motion failed when the majority of councillors voted against with some Conservative members voting for and a number of UKIP members abstaining.

A Thanet council spokesman said: “”Councillors were not threatened with High Court action in respect of delegations. Any High Court action would be in relation to continued failure to declare a vacancy.”

18 Comments

  1. You couldn’t make it up, could you! Once again Thanet Council have proved they couldn’t run a bath! I’m with Karen Constantine, local democracy will be undermined if one council officer can decide if a Councillor can be a Councillor or not. In this case its axiomatic Ian Venables is NOT working for the Council, Durrh!

    • Ian bendable? Terry vebables could do a better job than the old bag Iris Johnson. When will you get proper people that can simply do the job. She was useless as a ward counciĺlor in the mid 90s.
      Must do better.(Margate central always been a laughing stock) she’s rude, she’s useless. Just saying 🤣🤣

  2. Apparently though, this one officer is carrying out their duties to inform the Councillors that they should declare the vacancy or legal action may follow. The officer is following the legal advice given to them. If the councillors do not agree with that legal advice then this is where the problem lies. They need to get together and take that up with the legal advisors.
    It is a shame nothing can be decided on for the better of Thanet at TDC through democratic procedures.

  3. Threatening Elected Councillors with legal action , for not kowtowing and blindly obeying the diktats from the very well remunerated Senior Officers is disgraceful , …
    Their attempts to claim unwarranted powers for the CEO and Deputy, was rightly voted down by the Councillors….Yet begs the question as to why the Cabinet Members voted for it ?
    There is something rotting away within the portals of TDC….
    That rottenness needs urgent surgery…..
    Let’s hope that can happen soon…

  4. In HR practice, by law, if a staff member has a conflict of interest, or there is a serious issue to address, there are procedures which must be followed and seen to be transparent to all parties. This includes a verbal and written warning, dated and witnessed, and more than one meeting. The outcome of this procedure is then fully documented and advised (or discussed, resolved) as needed. If necessary, clear options are given to the staff member concerned. We had none of this for the issue of disqualification, and therefore we were being asked to declare a vacancy blind. I stand by that parallel and cannot understand why it was not followed in such a serious council matter. We were elected on a democratic vote and we must ensure transparency and fairness in our procedures.

    • This isn’t HR law, this is constitutional law regarding elected members. They are not protected as employees. At least check what you are writing.

      • Well, Johnny, as you will see I have written about a parallel not a substitution. At least HR law has a duty to be transparent, and to ensure that all parties are clearly informed on the issues. We have a right to expect no less than that in constitutional matters.

  5. The only vacancies that should be advertised are those of a new Chief Executive and a New Monitoring Officer at Thanet District Council with no hidden agendas.

  6. This is not good news.Officers and Cllrs have different roles.Councillors set policy and officers implement.It is called the division of powers.The Cabinet mucks this up as it falls between two stools and manages neither very well.
    As I understand it, Cllr Venables received inaccurate advice from TDC before he took the post.What should happen is that the CEO should launch an investigation into this matter and come back to the Council with an adequate explanation as to how Cllr Venables was misled and then seek a way through the impasse. Blustering and threats of court action only make it worse.
    I would also recommend a cabinet of all the talents on a unity basis to take this administration in hand, as it is becoming a laughing stock and is much disliked by the community it purports to serve

  7. The slogan ‘ clean up Thanet ‘ not only applies to its litter strewn streets but also the council itself!!

    • ‘Litter strewn streets’ and who creates the litter County Councillor Lewis? Dirty filthy people. If your so concerned pick some litter up yourself as I do frequently in the area where I live.

  8. It’s about time that our paid officers learnt that they are employee’s of Thanet district council and the people of Thanet. Someone please find a way to put them in their place!

  9. If the councillor has clearly behaved in a way which is not legally permitted then I don’t see why the council’s legal adviser should not inform the council of the fact. Personally, I think Ian Venables could probably be more usefully employed with Rise than with the council.

    • By this I mean that Mr. Venables’ work with homeless people is more directly useful. There seem to be plenty of unsuitable people willing to stand as a councillor on TDC. But homeless people need all the help they can get and Mr Venables’ position needs to be clarified as quickly and impartially as possible.

  10. Council officers are there to carry out orders from elected councillors. When they try to run the coucil they must go or stand for office.

  11. Council Officers might well be there to implement the policies devised by Councillors, but only as far as is legal. I think it is quite unreasonable that an Officer is being so publicly pilloried when all he’s doing is his job.

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