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image credit: Westham Community News

The affairs of Alison Stevens, who until recently was the parish clerk of Westham Parish Council, are to be opened to public scrutiny.

Alison Stevens handed in her notice at a recent monthly meeting of the council.

A Freedom of Information Request undertaken by a Westham parishioner has shown that she was contracted for 66 hours and responsible as a clerk for six parish councils.

A further Freedom of Information Request seeks to establish the total of her earnings for all these positions.

Commenting on the investigation by the Pevensey Bay Journal, editor of the newspaper, Simon Montgomery said today (7 May), “there is something about the affairs of Westham Parish Council in recent times that is simply not right, and like the silt at the bottom of Westham village pond we need to find out what is hiding at the bottom of this story”.

He added, “I now now spent nearly six months looking carefully at all the minute taking and management of the office of the parish by clerk Alison Stevens and I am clear what we are seeing is a public interest story here that extends beyond the boundaries of six parish councils”.

The newspaper which investigated the affairs of the council in 2018 described one of the meetings held as ‘dysfunctional’ (Monday September 17).

The account titled Westham Parish Council, Dead in the Water—Send in the Clowns, there have to be Clowns recorded what was said at the meeting, which turned into a meltdown, with at one point one of the councillors describing some of the 42 Westham parishioners gathered, aiming to participate in the meeting as ‘clowns’.

There has been much change in Westham Parish Council. The precious village pond has now been partly de-silted and three councillors have resigned, as well as the parish clerk.

Simon said, “when I began to look at the hours contracted by Alison Stevens and the possible sums that she was earning, I was astonished. I was also astonished at the minute taking in which the language was quite deliberately obscurantist.

“What I was seeing was not the record taking of a parish clerk, but someone who had invented their own protocols, use of language and approaches to parish council minute taking that was idiosyncratic, and on occasion inappropriate.

“The minute taking, undertaken over many years, was unchallenged and became the norm. We are in the world of Kafka and the Castle with some of the imaginarium of Westham Parish Council and some of what has been minuted.

Simon added that he had given Alison Stevens the opportunity to see the basis of his report on what had been unearthed about her role, with an opportunity to comment, but that she had declined the opportunity to comment.

He said,”I have had a number of phone calls with Alison Stevens and email exchanges in which she has demonstrated both decorum and an appropriate understanding of the public context of her job in relation to communications. We are not looking at a public scandal here, I found her responses credible and honest and I also found her personable and likeable just for the record.

“Having said that, what appears to have happened here is that a series of roles have been adopted.

The minute taking morphs into the kind of areas that are more commonly seen with statements by beleaguered Chief Executives and their office, by way of example.

The role of parish clerk now is much more a management role, but the work is about supporting the conduct of the parish council. When the role becomes one in which the parish clerk has to defend their own decision making, against  opposition from parishioners, an ambiguity emerges about the proceedings that can have an impact on the functionality of the council. Is this what has happened in Westham?

We appear to be some way from transparency. If the messenger becomes the message, then the work of a parish council stalls. Does this explain why the narrative of Westham Parish Council became so difficult to read?

“We are beginning this investigation with a simple question, how much was Alison Stevens earning for her contracted 66 hours a week? This total number of weekly hours would suggest she was working seven days a week at more than nine hours a day.

“Her contracted hours were clearly well in excess of what could be undertaken by a nurse in charge of an A&E Department, a full time teacher, a full time fire fighter or other dedicated public servant.

“What could be argued is that all these professions have significant responsibility attached to their positions, beyond the question of de-silting a village pond.

“That is not to denigrate in any way the role of a parish clerk, the key figure in any community with regard to ‘first tier government’, but seen in context, the fact that Alison Stevens was responsible for six parish councils is beginning to look like a question that should be opened to public scrutiny.

The role of Clerk is to ensure that the Council as a whole conducts its business properly and to provide independent, objective and professional advice and support. This process becomes more complex when the clerk becomes the person who is to be scrutinised.

The starting point for the investigation is to ask how on earth one person found themselves appointed to the stewardship of six parish councils as the clerk.

MPs in this country are paid £79,468 a year. How much was Alison Stevens being paid before she handed in her notice? A Freedom of Information Request should establish the answer to this question.