THE PUBLIC SERVICES OMBUDSMAN FOR WALES has looked into a former Fishguard and Goodwick town councillor, after it was alleged that he misled the parish council into believing he was securing lottery cash.
The ombudsman was informed that Cllr Chris John had deceived the town council, during five meetings – between April 2013 and March 2014 – that he had submitted an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, for help with funding the World War One commemorations.
The community councillor said his application had passed the ‘first stage’ and was now on ‘stage two’ of the funding process. However, enquiries by the town council revealed that Cllr John had only submitted an expression of interest and no funding had been applied for.
The mayor at the time, Cllr Richard Grosvenor said the Cllr John’s dithering had left it too late for an application, and as a result many local organisations had been left disappointed.
The ombudsman found that Cllr John breached paragraph 6 1 (a) of the code of conduct. Cllr John was elected to the town council in 2012 and Cllr Grosvenor told The Herald: “Cllr John gave very articulate reports and he was praised by his fellow councillors for all the hard work he had been putting into the WWI project. This really is an embarrassing situation for the council.”
The town clerk Sarah McColl Dorion added: “Misrepresenting is a serious offence. Once we knew Cllr John had been misleading us, we contacted the ombudsman.”
Mr John said that with his farming job and the birth of his first child he had less time to devote to the project. “All I can say is that the timescale did go on too long and I apologise for that,” he said.
“I’m extremely apologetic to have caused any upset or disappointment. It was never my intention to mislead anyone on this.”
As Cllr Chris John has resigned due to ‘moving out of the parish’, the ombudsman cannot take any action.
Former Cllr Chris John send the following letter to The Herald on Saturday (Jan 5), which we publish here in full:
I have seen and read many articles printed and published in the last couple of days regarding the findings of a Public Services Ombudsman investigation against me, condemning me and how I have misled and deeply embarrassed the Fishguard & Goodwick Town Council with regards to a Heritage Lottery Funding Application for monies to assist in the holding of commemoration events in our Twin Towns, and worse, to have let down my community as a whole. May I take this opportunity to say that I am extremely apologetic if I have caused upset and disappointment to anyone, as this was never my intention, nor did I mean to mislead anyone on this project.
However, I feel the full version of events has not been told, and until they are, I do not think the people of Fishguard & Goodwick can make up their own minds regarding this situation.
The Fishguard & Goodwick Town Council first began exploring the possibility of holding commemorational events for the 2014 First World War Centenary back in the autumn of 2012 under the leadership of then Mayor, Mrs. Maggie Stringer. A Committee was assembled by the Town Council to look into this project, and I was extremely keen to be involved due to my keen interest in both local and military history – this project married the two perfectly in my view. In a committee meeting that autumn, I was chosen to be the Chairman of the WW1 Committee, a great honour to be bestowed on such a new, and young, councillor and I was delighted.
The project started out on a really good footing; we held a public meeting in the Bay Hotel with other organisations, hoping that they would get involved. A number of them showed interest in this, and we talked about the various ideas of ways of commemorating such an important date in our nation’s calendar. It soon became apparent that many organisations wanted to hold a variety of events, and so it seemed to me that our Council should take an overall supervisory and administrative position; and this was reported to the full Town Council who agreed.
I was new and naive to the ways of local government, but I had some older and more experienced councillors on the Committee, and I felt that together we could make this project really work for our community. It was decided by the committee that we should look at obtaining HLF funding for this project as the supervisory body, and assist each of the different planned events by allocating funding. I was informed by Cllrs. Allison and Grosvenor who were on the WW1 Committee, that the process was “two-fold”. I then proceeded with speaking to the Heritage Lottery Fund in Cardiff via telephone about what kinds of events or projects they covered, the possibility of putting in a single, all-encompassing application for funding, and for ideas for projects. They informed me that I would need to make an Expression of Interest online to them, and then put together a comprehensive application, after which it would be considered and possible funding granted. I believed that this was the “two stages” of the process, and so I completed the Expression of Interest form online. I reported this to the Town Council, stating that we had completed “stage one” and we were looking at the “second stage” of the funding. With hindsight I can now see that my misunderstanding of the process coupled with the misdirection by certain councillors led me to make a complete muddle of my teminology used in the Council Chamber and recorded by the Town Clerk, which led to this investigation.
I spent the months, during which I reiterated our “progression to stage two” of the application process to the Town Council, obtaining ideas, collaborating with local organisations, attending numerous meetings, collating information on the men of Fishguard & Goodwick who fought and died in World War One, and obtaining quotes for a number of different proposals for the formal application. As those of you who have had dealings with democratic politics, by the time this information is compiled, relayed and acted upon takes time. Each committee member was employed full-time, and due to a number of reasons, it soon became a “one-man” committee.
However, I was determined this project carried on in honour of those who had fought and died in the First World War. Again, with hindsight, maybe this was a bad move on my part and I should have abandoned the plans according to Council Standing Orders as a committee must form a quorum of members for approval of suggestions to be brought to the Full Council.
Due to my occupation as a full-time dairy farm worker, and at the time my partner being heavily pregnant with our first child (who was born in April 2014 just after my removal from the WW1 Committee) I found myself having more and more limited spare time to devote to the project, just as the workload became more and more cumbersome. I even mentioned this informally to members of the Council, but I continued unaided.
Finally, with all the information gathered that I felt I required to complete the application process, I began to make a formal application online for funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for projects such as replica uniforms for the Army Cadets to wear and parade, trips to the Penally Trench system and local museums, and working on projects with the local schools to educate them about the First World War, and make sure this centenary did not pass without the sacrifices and information passed onto the next generation.
I had just began the application process when I was summoned to the Clerk’s Office for a meeting with the Clerk and the then Mayor. I spoke to them regarding all of the above, giving my explanation as to why the timescale had been far over-reached. It was then in that meeting I was told I was to be reported to the Ombudsman for misleading the Council, and gross misconduct. Although deeply hurt and frustrated, I accepted this as it was the correct procedure and had to be applied, and I was removed from the WW1 Committee. In my opinion, with my removal, the committee fell by the wayside and the planned events and application was abandoned by the decision of Cllr. Grosvenor.
I continued, wherever possible after my daughter’s birth, to attend Council meetings, and assisted the Clerk in making sure the History and Art Competitions went ahead apace in the local schools, designing the posters etc. The WW1 Committee regularly came up on the agenda of full Council meetings, but nothing was said, and the agenda item was quickly passed over. Retrospectively, I have wondered why no-one from the Committee stepped up to replace me and take over, especially as all the background work had been completed, and try to ensure that more of the planned events went ahead regardless of my removal. But, no-one did. Time soon passed, Remembrance Day came and went, and now in 2015 the Centenary Year is over, with little to show for it.
Finally however, despite my reasons, I take full responsibility, as the ex-Chairman of the Town Council’s WW1 Committee until Spring 2014, for its failure, and for that I apologise wholeheartedly to the community of Fishguard and Goodwick, and to the memory of those who lived and died on those atrocious battlefields throughout the world.
I would just like to add as a footnote that my resignation from the Town Council, although construed as connected to the findings of this Ombudsman’s investigation, actually had nothing to do with it. As mentioned previously, I continued where possible to attend Council meetings and it was simply due to my moving to Mathry closer to my new job on a different farm, and in doing so, I was now outside of the catchment area allowed for Councillors of the Town Council. I therefore had to tender my resignation as Councillor for Fishguard North-East Ward; a decision I did not take lightly as I had always wanted to follow in my late grandfather’s footsteps onto the Town Council and delve into a political career.
I have not made a previous reply to this story being published, as I was unaware of the verdict and closure of the investigation by the Ombudsman until after the deadlines given to me by the local press for comment. I feel that this was an immoral decision by certain members of the Town Council to release this story without my knowledge of its termination.
When I was contacted 23rd December by the Western Telegraph and County Echo, I made no reply as I was still under the impression that the matter was ongoing with the Ombudsman, and the last correspondence I had with them stated that any disclosure to the public and the press would be a violation of the Code of Conduct. It was not until the deadlines for a reply had passed that on the 27th December I received my post from my old landlord (who happens to be Cllr. Grosvenor) including the letter from the Ombudsman with their final verdict and ruling (and allowing me to speak on the investigation), which was sent out on the 19th December according to its date stamp on the envelope. Coincidence? Maybe.
I would like to finish by thanking you for reading this statement, and stating that I concur with the findings of the Ombudsman, but that I would only add that it was an unintentional misleading on my part. I hope that it gives my side of the story, and that it will help towards each reader coming to a balanced conclusion.