A report by the Tynwald Commissioner has thrown new light on a period when a village local authority was in turmoil.
Matters came to a head at public meeting held at Port St Mary town hall in June 2018 when it was revealed that no signed contract had been found for the village’s by then abandoned recycling scheme.
At the same meeting, it emerged that the Port St Mary Commissioners board had not seen a survey before they decided to buy a dilapidated building. Manxonia House was later sold at a loss as the commissioners did not have the money to finish refurbishing it.
Earlier that year, it was announced that an agreement had been reached with clerk Alastair Hamilton over matters that had led to his resignation in the January. His employment was terminated following an independent investigation.
In July 2020, a woman lodged a complaint with the Tynwald Commissioner for Administration (TCA) over matters arising from the departure of her husband from his senior role with the commissioners.
Tynwald Commissioner Angela Main Thompson has now published her report. The local authority is not named and the complainant is referred to only as Mrs X.
It clears Port St Mary Commissioners of maldadministration over various allegations made by Mrs X but finds its failure to follow due process in appointing an independent investigator to look into her complaints did amount to maladministration.
The report notes that circumstances surrounding Mr X’s departure were the subject of much press speculation. His dispute with the town hall ended in a settlement whose terms were subject to a non-disclosure agreement.
Mr X was appointed in spring 2014 despite, the report confirms, his not having any experience in local government.
Two controversial events marked his four-year tenure – the purchase and redevelopment of Manxonia House and a contract for waste removal made with a private sector contractor. They led to criticism of ratepayer funds being squandered, created factions and divisions among the commissioners and fuelled a belief in the village that this was a dysfunctional authority.
Mr X subsequently returned to the UK where he had business interests but his wife remained in Port St Mary.
She maintained that the commissioners’ response to events had caused her family reputational damage and believed that a great injustice had occurred.
Mrs X made a formal complaint to the Commissioners over their ‘failure’ to provide accurate information to the press about the property project, the reading and subsequent publication of a ‘potentially libellous poem’ at a town hall Christmas party and allowing ‘inaccurate’ information to be published about the failed recycling contract.
Findings of the investigation are not outlined in the TCA’s report but it notes that Mrs X remained dissatisfied, leading to her July 2020 complaint to the TCA. It reveals the earlier independent investigator’s report was delayed as police were called in to investigate a serious allegation in relation to the recycling contract – but no evidence in support of the allegation was found.
Among Mrs X’s complaints was that a commissioner had been wrong when they publicly stated there was no contract between the board and the private contractor brought in for the management of recyclables.
Mrs Main Thompson concludes there was certainly an oral contract and she did not need to make a definitive finding as to whether a written contract was signed. But she remarks that one of the odder aspects of this investigation had been the ‘paucity’ of legal advice.
She notes: ‘Several documents I have seen appear to have been drafted by Mr X. It is likely that any contract would have been similarly drafted. There must be a question mark over his competence to produce legal documents in accordance with Manx law.’
In 2016 the town hall had requested borrowing £200,000 to buy Manxonia House, the Department of Infrastructure advising in strong terms that a structural survey was obtained. But in the event, no such survey was carried out.
And shortly after the DoI approved the loan, it was informed it would not now be required – as the authority had apparently ‘found’ £200,000 that had lain undiscovered in the village’s finances, It has been suggested that the source of the £200,000 was the purchase of war bonds, notes the Tynwald Commissioner.
Mrs X was asked about the failure to obtain a full structural survey of Manxonia House. She told Mrs Main Thompson she was sure there had been a full survey, as her husband was a ‘very successful businessman who would never buy a property without a full structural survey’.
But Mr X told the TCA he had only obtained a valuation survey, claiming the commissioners had not agreed to the fees for a full structural survey. But Mrs Main Thompson said she could find no evidence of such a request having been refused.
While finding no basis for the majority of Mrs X’s allegations, the TCA did uphold her complaint about the town hall’s decision to appoint as independent investigator the same consultant who had been used by the board at the time of her husband’s departure.
She found the appointment of the independent investigator despite her objections and the failure to follow the process set out in the complaints procedure did constitute maladministration.
Mrs Main Thompson’s report concludes: ‘In human terms, this has been a sad case to investigate.
‘I am certain when Mrs X made the complaints, she believed what she alleged. She had absolute faith in her husband and objected to his being traduced.
‘Unfortunately, her perceptions were incorrect, and a number of her allegations fall away when properly scrutinised. If anything, there was too much trust placed in her husband who was not supervised adequately on the two unsuccessful projects, with a consequential loss of ratepayers’ money.
‘The turmoil in the commissioners during 2017 and at the start of 2018 are history and I am told governance and systems have been improved.’