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Desperately seeking publicity...
Desperately seeking publicity

The impending elections are keeping local government's legal eagles in plenty of work.

On top of the proliferation of councillors wanting to send thousands of letters to all their constituents about a pot hole that they and they alone have mended, the desire for publicity can end up leading to the odd run-in with the law.

'Key members will want extra publicity for promises of things we know aren't even planned or in the budget,' one lawyer warns.

He adds: 'But the code of conduct limits publicity before an election rather than increases it.'

In fact, the electioneering has already led to some heated debate revolving around the use of the word 'surely'.

'When the leader or the chief executive uses a phrase beginning 'surely its lawful...', it means they really know it's probably unlawful,' he continues.

'But if they say it in front of others, you [the lawyer] will have to say 'no' and come across as unhelpful. The alternative is to say 'yes' which means you have to shoulder the risk and the blame.'

His advice to anyone who finds themselves in the same situation? 'Say 'surely with your experience you don't need me to tell you the obvious, do you?''

And at least it's quiet in the civic HQ with all the councillors pounding the streets.

Factor in extra costs for coffee

Also causing concern is the fact that initial consideration of complaints about councillors looks set to transfer to local standards committees. They will filter out the trifling matters so only the most serious cases get passed to the Standards Board.

It reminds one lawyer of a time when the board for a while found itself having to meet every five minutes to consider what to do about every complaint it received 'because someone had forgotten to legislate a power to delegate'. It wasn't until the Local Government Act 2003 that it was given the ability to pass on the burden of the first filtering to its officers.

'This means Mr I.M.A Obsessive-Complainer can write to his local monitoring officer to say Councillor X hasn't yet returned the spade he borrowed last month, or Councillor Y's dog has just done a whoopsy on his lawn,' he says.

'Then everything will have to go on hold while a committee meeting is organised and the relevant councillors and independent members are called in from their other lives in order to decide whether to have it investigated.

'The cost in coffee and biscuits alone will require a significant budget adjustment.'

To join the legal Insider email: Views published anonymously.

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