Monday, 11 July 2011

A Divided Parish - Part 4

After the court case against Donald Lucas had collapsed, the shambles of the St Brelade's rating system led to 2 stormy parish assemblies in February 1982. An overwhelming vote at a Paris assembly called by the electors led to Mr Lucas being reinstated in his job, even though Len Downer did not allow him to actually work at the Parish Hall - instead he was given "paid leave."

An enquiry team had been set up after the first parish assembly and this included the former Bailiff Sir Robert Le Masurier, and Jurats Henry Perree and Raymond Le Cornu. The conclusions of this team was that the Parish had no real problems, but rather they claimed that the Island's rating system had caused the Parish's problems, because it had been designed for the last century, and the problems of the 20th century - such as large and much more unwieldy Parishes of many properties, all of which needed assessing, a fast post-war price escalation of property value, and the rapid inflation of the late 1970s. The older system designed was for smaller communities, where valuations were largely static, and could not cope.

But when this was considered by the Comité Paroissale, there was a rift within that body itself. One of the parish's four Centeniers, Douglas Isherwood, walked out of the meeting of the Comité Paroissale in April 1982 after a strong difference of opinion. This leaked out to the Jersey Evening Post. Feeling fenced in by an intrusive media, the Constable, Mr Len Downer, refused to discuss either the meeting or the reports that Mr Isherwood had walked out.

Meanwhile Mr Donald Lucas was not remaining silent but was still calling for an enquiry to be held, because he claimed that the full facts of the case had never been aired. He argued that the committee of enquiry was wrong in concluding that defects in the rate law were at the root of the problem. " I made specific complaints about the way in which I believed the law was being abused, and these were substantiated in the Royal Court. The parish cannot as Sir Robert and the Jurats suggest, take comfort from the fact that the same sort of irregularities that I reported in St Brelade are taking place in other parishes." He also announced that he would be seriously considering returning to his job at the Parish Hall when his paid leave expired in two weeks time. The parish secretary, Mr Lawrence Le Brocq, thought that this might not prove possible as it would be a very delicate situation with Mrs Olga Johnson still at work on the rates system in the parish!

On May 5, 1982 there was a 90 minute meeting which was dominated by several major speeches. The Constable, Mr Len Downer, opened the meeting by saying that part of the problem was that the three-man committee of enquiry had not been able to find adequate terms of reference to complete their work. Still smarting from the walk-out by Centenier Isherwood, he echoed the call in a letter from the three-man committee which called for the parish officers to "be true to their oath of office", which he then made plain that he understood meant they should either give him their support or offer their resignation. " I would like everybody here to help in ending this disharmony in the parish," he said. But a call for all opposition to cease, and to stifle debate was clearly not going to work.

Senator Ralph Vibert then made a major speech. "We have had enough in this parish," he said, "It is not a question of putting anything under the carpet, but enough is enough. You want to consider how this started. It started because Donald Lucas saw there was something wrong in the assessments, and he was quite right. He told the Constable and the Constable told him to put it down in writing and he was quite right to do so. What the Constable did or did not do his past history. Mrs Johnson was so badly advised and was stupid, because it was impossible to pin libel on Donald Lucas. It was bound to be privileged. The new Constable decided, because of peace in the Parish Hall, to dismiss Donald Lucas. In this he was wrong, definitely wrong. It must be said that the previous Bailiff in his report says that he does not know what he would have done in the circumstances. The Constable must take Donald Lucas back. We all voted that there should be an enquiry into anything that was wrong in the parish, and you were all asked to put any points which would be investigated. These points consisted of two things only -- complaints made by Mr Lucas and complaints made by other people about rates."

He went on to note that part of the problem must lie with the deficiencies of the rating system: "The enquiry team said that they could not enquire into Mr Lucas's legal case or individual rating matters. They said that the real cause of the trouble is the law on rates. It is a proper mess throughout the island. The States and the Constables should put that right."

"I say to Mr Lucas: if you want your job at the parish hall, we have got it back for you. Go there, take it and do a good job. Do not harp on the past for your sake, for ours and for other Parishes. Put things right as they occur."

"I asked the Constable and his officers to take back Donald and make something work. Let us look to the future and call it a day for Gods sake ."

Mr Anderson, one of the rating assessment committee, said ""The two years I had been pilloried by many friends for what I tried to do to the best of my ability. I came here to answer these charges. There is no real problem in the rating office and I'm going to bring evidence of that."

Mr Anderson said that the media had stirred up a lot of trouble and also singled out the JEP in particular.

Mr Anderson estimated that something like 10,000 rate calculations had to be made every year in a short time and the members of the assessment committee did not have the time to do it.

"We delegated this work to the staff, one to do the work and one to check it. We accepted full responsibility for the results."

He then turned to Mr Lucas and said that he had quite rightly pointed out mistakes in allowances, but he said that the main problem was a lack of communication at the parish hall and that Mr Lucas should have gone to speak to the assessment committee directly.

Turning to Mr Downer, he said, "I'm hoping sir, that under your tenure of office we're going to have improvements. You come and talk to us but we'd like to see a damm site more of you. We would like to see the Parish Secretary have a much greater knowledge of rating. We would like to see much greater general co-operation with the general office so that the letters come up more quickly."

Concluding his speech he said that St Brelade used to be a very happy parish: "If its officers who were trying to stab the Constable in the back would rally round, this will never happen again."

Then the Rector, the Reverend Michael Halliwell, stood to speak, which was quite unprecedented, as normally Rectors stayed away from the political arena, since their removal in the post-war restructuring of the States.

Michael Halliwell supported Senator Vibert's call for Parish unity, and he also said that he he had been asked why he had not made a public contribution to the discussion before. He said that "The reason is that as rector of the parish I see it is my duty to be available to anyone who may want to consult me on any private matter and to respect confidences. I've also always felt that I shall support my elected Constable."

"In 1980 I was appointed chairman of a committee set up by the Comité Paroissale to look into the matters raised in Mr Donald Lucas's original letter, but because of Mrs Johnson's legal action we had to stop our work."

The Rector said that since then the parish had had two enquiries and a legal action, but he believed that only limited progress had been made. He said that the parish, given the necessary goodwill and a spirit of co-operation now had the opportunity to put matters right and give Parishioners that trouble-free, efficient and happy administration they had the right to expect.

He told parishioners that Sir Robert's enquiry team had said the root of the problem -- but not the only cause in the Rector's view -- was the rate law, which was not designed for present-day circumstances. He said that the Constable appointed the rating officers, but they then worked for the assessment committee, over which the parish had no control.

"Do those employees report to the Constable, the parish secretary or the assessment committee? My surprise is that things worked out reasonably well for so long."

"Things have been said and done which should not have been said and done. We must remember that our employees have been under terrible pressure, and I don't want heads to roll nor do I want a witch-hunt. I want an end to the bitterness, recrimination and litigation, and I don't want anything brushed under the carpet."

The Rector also reminded parishioners that Mr Lucas' original letter was still on the table and that the original points he raised still remained.

"They are important and we cannot ignore them. As I see it they are that the law must be applied as fairly as possible and the public must be given their proper allowances, the piecemeal reassessment is wrong and should stop, and that the public should be treated at all times with courtesy."

The Rector said that in a harmonious office staff would be helpful to each other and to the public and he added that anyone who disrupted this by refusing to incorporate should be dismissed. Because it had become apparent that it was not clear who did what in the office, the Rector said that his committee were recommending that the offer of voluntary assistance from a trained management consultant should be accepted in order that the office administration be put on a proper footing. While the States could address the rating law, the administration in the Parish could also be dealt with, as that was also in need of being sorted out.

"The Consultant would produce suggestions for the Parish to consider and my hope would be that these conclusions will be made public."

"I hope that we can now all put the past behind as I look to the future and once discussion has taken place at this assembly I shall put my three propositions -- that we accept the report of the enquiry, that we call upon the States to revise as a matter of urgency the rate law now applicable, and that the management consultant will report back to Paris assembly with his findings."

After nearly 90 minutes of debate, at times heated, those present voted overwhelmingly for the peace plan put forward by the Rector.

The three propositions were formally put by the Rector and seconded by Mr Robert Parker. The vast majority of those present were in favour but 4 votes were recorded against and there were 31 recorded abstentions.

After the meeting, Constable Len Downer, who had played a largely passive role at the meeting made it clear to the media that he was determined to remain in charge of his parish. He said that if Mr Lucas went to see him he would be happy to discuss with him what his future employment should be. Mr Downer then criticised the media - particularly the Jersey Evening Post - for revealing details of the walkout at the committee meeting saying that these meetings should always be confidential.

In December 1982, the consultant reported back. The report by the management consultant Mr Frederick Ibbotson (who had given his time freely) was initially confidential for the Constable's eyes only, but the Jersey Evening Post managed to obtain a copy of it, and the news soon hit the headlines - "St Brelade Report Slams Parish Hall". The newspaper reported that:

"The consultants report on the administration of the parish of St Brelade is strongly critical of the way the parish is run. The confidential report recommends that the Constable Mr Len Downer assumes personal responsibility for leadership and control of staff in order to secure improved organisation, and to restore productive and reasonable working relationships in the Parish Hall. A parish meeting has been called tonight to consider the report's recommendations"

"Present levels of motivation and morale extremely low and deliberate effort must be made to re-establish a positive and pleasant working bar of the parish's employees."

"Mr Downer called a Parish assembly to consider the report's recommendations but it was understood that the report itself was not to be made available to parishioners."

One of the recommendations is the creation of the new post of accounts officer, to be filled by Mr Donald Lucas, the man at the centre of the parish rates row. But Mr Ibbotson criticises the cost of running the Parish Hall, and in an appendix to the report recommends a second phase of reorganisation leading to an eventual staff of only four instead of the present six. Describing the current performance of the administration he says that management and the administration of parish finances are in need of reorganisation and refinement. He reports that the auditors had expressed concern about the administration of the parish accounts. He believes that the work of the rates office and the assessors can be made more efficient.

"Methods of working, used by the administrative staff, are generally laborious and consume excessive amounts of time. Current administration costs can be reduced considerably, given proper study and analysis"

"Personnel administration in parish employment is virtually non-existent. There exist no letters of employment, no terms or conditions of employment, no job descriptions or records, no salary structure, no authorised sickness or vacation policy. These and other deficiencies must be corrected immediately."

Mr Ibbotson says that administrative procedures and practices can be improved and made much more cost-effective in the future by the application of sophisticated equipment and technology. He even criticises the Parish Hall furniture saying that much of the furniture would be unacceptable to employees of a commercial establishment. If the recommendations are approved the parish would be run by the parish secretary, the council officer, rates administration officer, assistant accounts officer, assistant rates administration officer and clerk.

When the Parish assembly took place a few days later, there was an overwhelming vote in favour of accepting the consultants report on the administration of the parish.

But there was also strong criticism of the Jersey Evening Post, both from the floor and from the Constable of St Brelade, Mr Len Downer, for its publication of details of the report before parishioners were able to discuss it.

At one stage Mr Downer referred to the JEP's article as "a lot of rubbish" claiming that it was based on a preliminary draft of the report. However, after the meeting, he was able to point to only one minor item concerning staffing that he would positively say have been changed in the final version of the report.

The meeting began with the Constable explaining that a select committee, comprising Senators Ralph Vibert and Dick Shenton, Deputy Enid Quenault and the Rector, the Reverend Michael Halliwell, had accepted the consultants findings and recommendations that he too was very pleased with it.

The report's compiler, management consultant Mr Frederick Ibbotson then outlined his findings and the plans he suggested for the future. He began by saying that his work had been carried out with the co-operation of the parish staff and that he had rarely worked in a more amicable atmosphere. His approach had been positive and constructive and he had not taken long to identify problem areas.

He briefly described antiquated methods of office procedure, the poor physical environment of the Parish Hall, the need for an accounts officer and the necessity of reducing the workload of the parish secretary. He also said that the report had concluded there should be an assistant
accounts officer and a clerk in the general office and the number of staff should be six, the number present employed. It was not within his brief, he said, to suggest who should fill the post mentioned.

"There has been certain publicity assigned to this assignment which has made my job more difficult. I hope this evening will mark an end of it."

Mr Downer reported that the Jersey Evening Post had access only to preliminary draft and made the allegation that rubbish had been printed. He also said that parishioners who had wanted to see the text of the report before the meeting had been given an opportunity to look at it.

Advocate John Cridland agreed that it was wrong that the report should be leaked, but he wanted an assurance that it would be freely available for examination. But Mr Downer replied that only two spare copies were available and that people would be welcome to come to the parish hall to see them. He added that he had not wanted to put the full report in the JEP.

Mr Dave Cashell, a parishioner who had voiced his opinion in every meeting concerned with the problems that have affected the parish in recent years also spoke. He asked how they could be unity among the parish hall employers when three entirely separate departments were to be set up, and why there should be a lapse of three years before parish manager takes control of administration, adding we should get the right man for the job now. He summarised his view by saying "we should get on with reorganising this parish which has been a bit of a jumble, hasn't it?"

Mr Ibbotson replied that the proposed post was not an additional job to be filled at once, adding "I do not want to diminish the Parish Secretary's status." In addition he said that he'd not been able to allow the parish schisms of the past few years to influence his judgement though since he could not felt to know with them he had had to adopt a rather schizophrenic attitude.

"Bad organisation has been responsible for much of the bad feeling", he concluded. "Quite a lot of the fuss over the past years was about a rating system and not about the administration of it".

This point was taken up by the rector who said that an administration that was badly in need of updating has caused difficulties because of this, compounding the problem.

On the proposition that Mr Robert Parker the meeting decided overwhelmingly the recommendation of acceptance of the report by the select committee that it should be adopted.

The implementation of the report meant more standardisation and unification of rating procedures and an avoidance of the piecemeal approach which had been taken previously.

As well as this, the parishioners had also been aware that the States themselves were considering the problems of anomalies and muddles over an ancient rating law that had not been designed for large 20th-century parishes, and for a period of considerable property inflation. This meant that part of the problem over rates, and re-assessments, was to be considered elsewhere, and not at the meeting, or as Len Downer put it "we are not talking about rates tonight".

However, while this had settled the immediate divisions within the parish, underneath, there was still a lot of resentment about the way in which Mr Downer, the Constable, had conducted matters; Parishioners still grumbled about how he had behaved unjustly towards Donald Lucas, who never did get his post back, and about his high-handed attitude.

There was no opposition in 1984, as Alf Vibert had failed to be elected in 1981 by a considerable margin, and no one else was coming forth. It has to be remembered that in those days, Constables were largely elected from the ranks of the Centeniers or Municipality (such as the Procurer du Bien Publique) within the Parish, although a trend was beginning whereby Deputies would seek the post. Outsiders from the political arena or the Municipality never stood! Contested elections were rare - the 1981 example being the first contested election in St Brelade in 142 years!!

So Len Downer was re-elected by default, but in 1987, when the position of Constable came up for election, the much admired Parish Deputy, Enid Quenault, decided to stand for election on a platform of "healing the divisions" that still existed (albeit unsaid) within the parish

Mr Downer was considering whether to stand against her, and at first was of the opinion that he should make a fight of it. However, when he met his principal supporters at a private meeting at the Pisces Gym, they told him - one by one - that if he stood, he would suffer a humiliating defeat because many parishioners still resented the way he had handled the Donald Lucas affair, and his high-handed attitude of being right.

After this meeting, rather like Mrs Thatcher was to do in years to come, he decided that he would not stand again. And indeed, in 1987, Deputy Quenault was elected to be the first woman constable of St Brelade, and in doing so, she ensured that the festering resentment which still had remained within the Parish was finally laid to rest. And Mrs Olga Johnson left her job at the Parish Hall, although not entirely Parish concerns, as in 2008 she signed the nomination paper for Mervyn Le Masurier.

So, finally, ended the affair of the divided Parish.

St Brelade's has never seen such fiery Parish meetings since.

1982 J.J. 67, Transcript of Johnson V Lucas, Jersey Law Reports
Jersey Evening Post Almanac
Jersey Evening Post

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