Council told to tender for legal and PR advice

LARNE Borough Council has been urged to test the value for money provided by its legal services and public relations consultants.

The Chief Local Government Auditor, Louise Mason, last week told all 26 district councils in Northern Ireland that she expects them to “clearly demonstrate” how current arrangements for seeking legal advice provide value for money, adding: “This is most easily achieved in an open procurement exercise.”

The guidance was issued in Ms Mason’s first annual report on local government. She has also sent Letters of Audit to each council, summarising financial standing and raising specific concerns. In Larne’s case, Ms Mason has queried the council’s appointment of a public relations firm without embarking on a full tendering exercise.

Belfast-based McCann PR was commissioned by the council in 2008 to help cope with the aftermath of the Northern Ireland Ombudsman’s damning report on the council’s handling of a developer-led regeneration scheme for Glenarm. In the same year, the local authority was in the media spotlight again after recording the province’s highest rate of staff absenteeism.

Ms Mason noted that chief executive Geraldine McGahey contacted each of the other 25 councils to ask how their PR was managed and, if consultants were used, to recommend a supplier.

“On review of the information received, and the positive recommendation by two other councils, a PR firm was appointed,” said the audit chief’s report. “The PR firm was appointed in March, 2008 without a tendering exercise taking place,” she added.

Ms Mason stated: “We are concerned that, in the absence of a full tendering exercise, value for money may not have been achieved.”

McCann PR has been engaged on an annual contract and the Larne Times understands the present agreement expires next April.

Chairman of Larne council’s audit committee, Cllr Martin Wilson, said the council plans to put both legal services and PR out to tender in 2012, adding: “My own opinion is that a lot of this work would be better done jointly with other councils, to achieve economy of scale. If Larne is to merge with Ballymena and Carrickfergus it might be better to get together with those councils now to obtain these services. I think it’s the best way to obtain the value for money that the auditor wants.”

The three authorities are presently engaged in negotiations aimed at engaging a single procurement officer to look after all their interests.

In recent years, the chief local government auditor has reminded Larne Council of the need to appoint a director of corporate services - a post which has been vacant since December, 2006 despite two attempts at recruiting a replacement (on each occasion the candidates interviewed were deemed not suitable).

The duties are presently carried out by various heads of service and the chief executive. The chief local government auditor’s 2010 Audit Letter recommended a risk assessment to establish whether ”the current scenario with no permanent appointment is sustainable against a background of value for money considerations and the fact that other councils are now starting to recruit again to senior positions”.

The latest Auditor’s Letter, for the year to March, 2011 is presently with the council.