Story behind Seaton Town Clerk’s resignation to remain secret

Information Commissioner rules that the town council was right to withold the reasons for David Mears’ departure

The reasons behind the suspension and subsequent resignation of Seaton town clerk David Mears remain shrouded in mystery this week.

A year-long campaign to have the full facts of the case made public has ended in failure, after a ruling by the independent Information Commissioner.

He concluded that Seaton Town Council was right not to disclose details of a compromise agreement it reached with Mr Mears - ahead of his departure – which bound both parties to secrecy.

The verdict comes in response to former town councillor Colin Donelan’s request, under the Freedom of Information Act, for full disclosure of all the facts of the case.

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He was especially keen to know how much public money had been “wasted” on extra staffing during Mr Mears’ two months’ suspension on full pay. He asked:

* Why Mr Mears was suspended in February of last year and what caused this action to take place?

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* What were the names of the councillors who authorised this action?

* What was the cost to the taxpayers of having two clerks on the payroll for a two-month period after Philip Higginson was called in as temporary replacement during Mr Mears’ suspension?

* Why Mr Mears subsequently resigned?

In response, the town council provided some information – revealing that the cost of having two town clerks for a two-month period was �9,625 (although not shared equally).

It also revealed the names of those who served on the personnel committee which took the decision to suspend Mr Mears – Geoff Jones, Sophie O’Connell, John Meakin and current mayor Peter Burrows.

But the council would not provide further details claiming it breached the Data Protection Act and Mr Donelan’s request was eventually referred to the Information Commsisioner.

He has now ruled that the details of the agreement struck between the town council and Mr Mears, ahead of his departure, should remain confidential.

Case officer Elizabeth Hogan said: “The commissioner’s decision is that Seaton Town Council is entitled to rely on the personal data exemption as its basis for withholding the requested information.

“The town council provided the commission with a copy of the withheld information. This was minutes of its personnel committee meetings, an email exchange, the former town clerk’s letter of resignation and a transcribed extract from a compromise agreement made between the town clerk and Seaton Town council.

“Seaton Town Council argued that the former town clerk would have a reasonable expectation that all the withheld information would not be disclosed. It referred to the relevant terms of the compromise agreement in support of this view. It also argued that there was no legitimate interest in disclosure of the information to the public.

“The Commissioner concluded that it would be unfair to disclose information that is otherwise protected by a compromise agreement.”

This week Mr Donelan told The Herald he was disappointed at the decision. But he would not exercise his right of appeal, having already spent around a year fighting the case.

“I just thought, as it involved wasting taxpayers’ money, the public had a right to know,” he said.

“Why was it all kept so secret and was there something they were trying to hide?”

“We are supposed to be an open society.”

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