THE leader of a council who launched an investigation into leaked sensitive documents within weeks of taking office has faced questions over why it took nine days to root out the source of the blunder.

Opposition councillors on Darlington Borough Council said they had suspicions there were more people involved in the leaking of unpublished draft Local Plan papers after public relations consultant and newly-elected councillor Mike Renton admitted to causing “something that has escalated from a misunderstanding to a significant issue”.

The Northern Echo: Councillor Mike RentonCouncillor Mike Renton

A meeting of Darlington Borough Council’s cabinet heard a shadow of suspicion had been cast over council officers after its leader, Councillor Heather Scott, had issued assurances on June 11 that no member of her Conservative group had leaked the documents.

It had been established the leak had come from an officers’ briefing to Tory group members and led to part of PowerPoint presentation featuring a map, and even an audio recording of the briefing “freely circulating among residents”. 

On June 26, Cllr Scott emailed all councillors, forwarding an apology that Stephenson ward member Cllr Renton sent to her on June 20.

She wrote: “In good faith I made a statement at that meeting that it was not one of our group who was responsible but as a result of the subsequent investigation that was incorrect.”

She said her party had a strict code of conduct for group members and the appropriate action had been taken.

Cllr Renton’s email stated: “I wrongly assumed the information was not confidential. I want to sincerely assure you that I would never pass on information that I thought were confidential, or risked damaging the standing of the council or my group. I hope you can accept my apology and my assurance that this will never happen again.”

The authority’s Opposition leader, Councillor Stephen Harker questioned why it had taken nine days for the council’s Tory leaders to identify the source of the leak.

He told the corporate board: “It wasn’t particularly complicated, it was just asking who has leaked it. That can be done in 24 hours, so I was really surprised it took that long and was two weeks before councillors were subsequently informed.”

Referring to Cllr Scott’s assurance that the leak had not come from one of her group, Cllr Harker added in the interim period there had been quite a number of council officers who had faced difficult questions and had the finger unfairly pointed at them.

He said: “The question is really why did it take so long to find out?”

Cllr Scott said she had not been aware of any officers who were concerned about the investigation. 

She replied: “The reason it took so long is we had to be sure that we got all of the evidence and obviously had to deal with it within our group as well.

“When you are doing an investigation you have to be sure that you have covered all of the bases. I think it’s better that you take time to do it so that you get to the bottom of it, rather than do it in haste and maybe not get the correct result.

“I have had some emails back from people saying how pleased they were that we were open and honest about it. I would hope we can draw a line under it. It has been dealt with and it has been dealt with within our group.”