A leading member of Aberdeen Council’s administration has been censured for revealing secret budget details to the public last year.
Councillor Marie Boulton was found to have breached the Councillor’s Code Of Conduct by a Standards Commission panel earlier this afternoon.
Mrs Boulton – the head of the city licensing board and convener of the council’s capital programme and planning committees – admitted telling a public meeting of Cults, Bieldside and Milltimber Community Council financial information about the 2019 council budget.
The watchdog panel rejected her argument that the information communicated was already in the public domain, before she revealed it on January 24.
In response to the panel’s decision, Mrs Boulton said: “I’m obviously disappointed.
“This is not a normal regime for me to appear in as I take my position extremely seriously.
“I’m here to serve my community and the people of my city to the best of my ability and I believe I’ve always done that, strived to do that.
“I don’t seek to politicise anything I am doing, I just try to do the job expected of me.
“There was no malice or attention-seeking with my conduct.”
The figure came from a confidential briefing document outlining budget options for the local authority in the coming financial year, indicating a likely funding shortfall of around £45 million – something not yet confirmed.
Its covering page – in bright red ink – stated: “This folder contains confidential information and must not be disclosed to any third party.
“Disclose (sic) of any of the contents of this folder to any third party could amount to a breach of the Councillors’ Code Of Conduct and the Market Abuse Regulations.”
Martin Campbell, speaking for the Ethical Standards Commissioner, dismissed a semantic argument around what the warning covered, adding: “In any ordinary reading, that is a clear indication the contents were confidential.”
Mrs Boulton, leader of the independent alliance which props up the Conservative and Labour ruling coalition, sat shaking her head as Mr Campbell said there was “a lack of logic” in her argument.
The Lower Deeside member and solicitor Duncan Love produced a letter from Ian Williams, a partner at leading accountancy firm Campbell Dallas, who had shown how a similar £44m figure could be uncovered by any member of the public, before the councillor’s breach in early 2019.
Under examination Mrs Boulton said: “If they had the information in front of them, most people could have worked out the figure.
“I’m not suggesting children or anything but most adults could have if you gave them the figures, yeah.”
The three documents include the council’s 2017/18 general revenue budget published in March 2018, and a briefing note on the government finance settlement for 2019/20 and a local government finance circular – both issued nine months later that December.
The calculation that “most people” could have carried out also relied on a knowledge of how much is raised through council tax in Aberdeen every year – another detail publicly available, Mr Love argued.
Mr Love told the panel: “My client’s point is if someone is interested to know what the budget deficit might be then they could trace these sources and do the ultimately straight forward arithmetical exercise to arrive at a very similar figure.”
But Mr Campbell reiterated the commissioner’s position that “it is not correct to frame this information as being accessible in the public domain as Councillor Boulton presented it.”
Mrs Boulton’s case was harmed by a failure to submit what might have been a key piece of evidence – a blog post by the council’s chief finance officer Jonathan Belford, supposedly outlining the £45m hole before she did.
She referenced it several times before Mr Campbell argued “no weight should be attached” to it as evidence.
The hearing panel’s ruling
Panel chairman Michael McCormick delivered the ruling of the panel to Mrs Boulton this afternoon.
He said: “The panel was satisfied the note on the front page of the budget pack and the markings on all other pages, that its contents were confidential and were to remain so until the budget discussion on March 5 2019.
“The panel accepted the respondent’s position that certain matters in the budget pack were already in the public domain.
“The panel considered however that the budget gap of £45m was an essential element of the matters to be discussed at the forthcoming budget meeting, as such the panel was of the view this sum should be kept confidential.
“The panel noted sometimes confidentiality is a matter of timing in that information may eventually be released into the public domain.
“In this case, the panel considered while information that there was a budget gap was in the public domain at the time of the community council meeting, it was not satisfied the £45m figure was readily accessible and identifiable.
“This was because the documents identified by the chartered accountants to work out what information was in the public domain had been collated from different sources and documents released over a nine-month period.
“In addition, the implications of the council tax settlement remained to be finalised by the council and the exact amount of revenue to be generated could not be determined with certainty.
“While the panel accepted the council budget was a matter of public interest and was to be considered at a stakeholder meeting on February 1 2019, it did not consider the fact the meeting was to take place meant the respondent was entitled to disclose the figure at the meeting of the community council.
“The panel concluded therefore the respondent’s action in disclosing confidential information at the meeting on January 24 2019 amounted to a contravention of paragraphs 3.16 and 3.17 of the code.
“The decision of the panel is to censure the respondent, Councillor Boulton.
“In reaching the decision on sanction, the panel noted the mitigation that the respondent has cooperated fully with the hearing processes.
“The panel heard the respondent has been a councillor for some 13 years with an unblemished record.
“The panel further heard the respondent takes her position as a councillor very seriously and works hard to serve her community.
“The panel noted the respondent has taken on additional responsibility as the convener of the licensing board and its planning committee.
“The panel emphasised the requirement for councillors to maintain confidentiality is a fundamental requirement of the code and a failure to do so can damage the reputation and integrity of the council and further can impede discussion and decision making.
“The panel agreed it’s legitimate and important for officers to be able to consult in confidence with elected members in respect of the council’s financial budget in order to manage internal and external communications and avoid causing any undue concern or alarm to those potentially affected, in particular staff and service users before expenditure and any saving options are finalised.
“The panel has found the respondent has failed to maintain confidentiality as required by the code.
“The panel was nevertheless of the view the respondent’s conduct did not warrant a more severe sanction because the panel has no reason to doubt the respondent’s position the disclosure was unintentional and had not been made for any personal or party political benefit or reasons.
“The panel has further noted the contravention had been a one-off incident and the respondent herself had highlighted circumstances to the council’s co-leaders and monitoring officer shortly after it took place.”