Ratepayers to pay bill for ‘futile’ council discrimination case

RATEPAYERS are facing a huge legal bill, running into tens of thousands of pounds, over a “futile” discrimination case which three senior staff members withdrew at the last minute.

The allegations were brought by Paddy Prunty, harbour master of Kinnego Marina, Kieran Cahoon, head of parks, and Declan Brown, manager of water sports and the golf-ski centre.

And even though they withdrew their allegations of religious, political and sexual discrimination last month - the night before it was due to be heard at an industrial tribunal - a hearing last Friday apportioned each side to pay their own costs.

Directors and councillors are furious at the ruling, but there are no further steps open to them, and they will have to pay the substantial legal bill. It is thought that the staff union may pay the costs of the three men.

The allegations date back to April 6, 2011, and 10 individuals were originally listed - chief executive Theresa Donaldson; former chief executive Francis Rock; former interim chief executive Michael Docherty; Samuel Gardiner and Dolores Kelly (both former councillors and now MLAs); Councillor George Savage (former MLA); Philip Heaton who prepared ‘The Heaton Report’ on leisure services for the council; Bronagh Slevin, director of corporate services, staff member Kirsty Pinkerton, still with the council’s environmental services, and Noel McClelland, retired principal administrative officer in leisure services.

By the time the final case was due to be heard, only Mr McClelland and Ms Pinkerton remained on the list, until the allegations against them also evaporated. Mr McClelland, while welcoming the fact that the “futile and unfounded allegations” had been dropped, added that he was extremely disappointed that the council had, to date, failed to issue a statement of support for Ms Pinkerton and himself.

He added, “When you consider that the 10 had been reduced to two, and then completely withdrawn, there was never a case to answer. I have been in local government for 45 years with an exemplary record and these allegations have been hurtful to my family and myself. Kirsty also has a clear record, but she cannot speak out as she is still employed by the council. I challenge the Civic Centre chiefs and the councillors to issue a statement in support of us.”

Alderman Arnold Hatch said, “Noel’s service to the council has been tremendous, and both he and Kirsty did not deserve the stress of this unfounded case. I will personally raise the issue in the appropriate committee, with a view to preparing a statement and then making it public.”

Meanwhile Dolores Kelly MLA, one of the original 10, said that the council must move to end “the culture of grievances that exists in Civic Centre”, adding, “It dates back to the days when the then chief executive Francis Rock tried to make sensible changes in the staffing set-up and received little support. There are still duplications of posts, and things must change. It’s costing a fortune in rates.”

And Councillor Joe Nelson said, “The fact that the ratepayers are left with five-figure costs is very worrying. We must strive to see if there are any more avenues open to us to resolve this.”

A Civic Centre statement said, “Following the withdrawal of an industrial tribunal claim for religious discrimination, Craigavon Borough Council pursued the applicants for costs. Council felt justified on this occasion to pursue costs due to the seriousness of the allegations made against council and others. The hearing took place on Friday, March 8 and costs were not awarded to council meaning council are responsible for their own costs and those bringing the case are responsible for theirs.”