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Thanet chief cleared after misconduct allegations

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An independent investigator has cleared Thanet DC chief executive Sue McGonigal, after a councillor raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest.

Barrister Mark Lowe QC rejected the complaint that Ms McGonigal improperly sought to favour a planning application.

Mr Lowe was appointed by the council’s general purposes committee as a ‘designated independent person’ under the disciplinary procedure for chief executives, to investigate a complaint made by Green party councillor Ian Driver.

Ms McGonigal represents Thanet on the board of East Kent Opportunities (EKO), a regeneration company that the council owns jointly with Kent CC.

EKO wished to promote a mixed employment and residential development on the 23.8 hectares New Haine Road site.

But Thanet’s planning policy reserved the site for employment use only.

Cllr Driver complained that Ms McGonigal sought in her EKO role to put improper pressure on Thanet’s planning director Simon Thomas to change his mind over the land’s use.

Mr Lowe’s report found Ms McGonigal had sought only to better understand the technical planning issues and act as an honest broker.

“There was an apparent impasse between the two bodies and she was in an ideal position to broker meetings and try to promote understanding between them to try and resolve the issues if that was possible,” the report said.

In an email to EKO officers, Ms McGonigal referred to needing information “to illustrate the argument I want them (TDC officers) to use to support the application”.

She later admitted to Mr Lowe that this message, which lay at the heart of Cllr Driver’s complaint, used “very clunky language”.

Mr Lowe found the chief executive may have used “clumsy and ill-considered” language. However, he said, “the phrase in question was not in an email direct to TDC officers. In fact it seems to have fallen unwittingly into their hands through the simple activity of forwarding an email chain as opposed to a single message”.

He added: “I am also satisfied that the chief executive did not confuse her role as chief executive of the local planning authority with that of being a member of the applicant body.”

Mr Lowe said Ms McGonigal at worst “made a misjudgement in forwarding the email train to [Mr Thomas] as it gave rise to a concern on his part that would not have arisen had he not read the content of that EKO email.

“It was the result of failing to re-read the email train before it was forwarded and in using sloppy or clumsy language in the first place. These are hardly heinous matters.

“This cannot justify a charge of misconduct or warrant the lengthy disciplinary procedures to which the CE has been subjected.”

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