Thursday 5 February 2009

New inquiry into councillor's role in rezoning

THE HIGH Court has directed Wicklow County Council’s ethics registrar to carry out a fresh inquiry into a complaint by Green Party Senator Deirdre de Búrca that Fianna Fáil councillor Facthna Whittle, who is also a solicitor, breached ethics legislation by proposing and voting for a quarry rezoning motion without disclosing his law firm had acted for the quarry owner in legal proceedings.

Mr Justice John Hedigan yesterday ruled the council’s ethics committee had not dealt with the correct questions in its report reviewing the conduct of Mr Whittle.

A report by the council and the county manager in June 2005 had concluded that Mr Whittle had acted unwisely but had not breached ethics legislation.

Quashing that report yesterday and directing the council’s ethics registrar to review the matter, the judge said it did not seem possible to him that the committee could have reached the conclusions it did had it properly construed the provisions of the Local Government Act 2001 relating to the ethical framework for local government service.

The judge also said criticism levelled at Ms de Búrca in the media in the wake of the report, was “unfair and vitriolic”.

She was not a crank seeking to disturb the administrative regime but had a well-founded actionable interest to ensure that high ethical standards in public office are maintained, he said.

In her challenge to the committee’s report, Ms de Búrca argued the authors of the report had simply failed to ask themselves the correct question: did Mr Whittle have a beneficial interest, within the meaning of Section 176.2 of the 2001 Act, in the motion? As a solicitor whose firm was acting for the landowner involved, Ms de Búrca’s case was that he did.

The report was compiled after Ms de Búrca formally complained to the ethics registrar of the council about Mr Whittle’s conduct during a council meeting on the county development plan on July 12th, 2004.

Mr Whittle had proposed the rezoning of lands at Ballylusk, Ashford, to extend a quarry there.

Ms de Búrca claimed Mr Whittle breached the ethics provisions because he failed to disclose that the solicitors’ firm of which he is principal was acting for the quarry owner in legal proceedings concerning the planning status of the site.

Mr Whittle had argued he was only aware of the judicial review proceedings concerning the landowner in a general way and even if the rezoning had been adopted, it would have had no effect on those proceedings.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Hedigan said he was quashing the report and remitting the matter for further consideration to the council’s ethics registrar under which councillors provide details of declarable interests as part of their annual declaration.

He said he did not find merit in the arguments of the council and Mr Whittle that the report had dealt with the correct questions in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary. The council had patently failed to consider the concept of a deemed beneficial interest under Section 176 (2) of the Act and in failing to do so, had made “a serious error of law”.

Irish Times

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