Is Ardglass Development Association Adhering To Its Basic Rules?

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Despite previous efforts to get a significant response from the executive committee of the Ardglass Development Association (ADA), I am delighted that they have finally surfaced and spoken to our local weekly newspaper, the Down Recorder. The article indicates the way ahead that the group believes it can take.

It's time we were all rowing in the same direction in Ardglass.
It’s time we were all rowing in the same direction in Ardglass.

Fundamentally, running a registered charity such as ADA cannot be run on a song and a prayer as in the past. They have to stick to the rules and they have failed to do this.

This week I spoke to the Charities Commission of Northern Ireland (CCNI) regarding ADA and received some very significant advice. I was told that ADA was indeed a registered charity (and it had charitable status back in around 1998),  and therefore as such should first and foremost be complying with charity law regardless of their claims over Ardglass marina which was turned into a charity by the CCNI recently.

Also, I was told by the CCNI that the governance document, ie the ADA constitution, must be adhered to, especially in respect to having ANNUAL AGM’s. Therefore, ADA has not been complaint. The last effort to call an AGM was on Monday 28th December 2014 at 11am. Both Mary McCargo and Councillor Cadogan Enright were seen leaving the Bath Street premises at 10.40am and a notice was placed in the window of the door saying it was cancelled and would be called at a later date. No explanation was given despite a number of people waiting outside to attend the AGM. I and others in Ardglass have not seen any AGM notices since that date, and certainly several years previous. Of course, notices could have been hidden behind crisp boxes in Milligan’s shop which may account for this as one was found there at the last AGM call !

So this does beg the basic question: does ADA actually have a mandate???

I have in the past written quite extensively about the core community issue in Ardglass as I live in this community. It is a subject close to my heart. But that is where it ends. My head is what is writing this article and I must disagree with the current ADA position on community development in Ardglass.

The Dirty Dozen

Firstly, it is an excellent idea to be inclusive and invite groups to augment the committee, however, when I suggested this some time ago to boost involvement, I was accused of underhanded behaviour. How times have changed!

Secondly, the reference to the Portaferry Regeneration model is something I referred to as a past member and chairperson of ADA back in 1997. This is old hat. And now we have a local councillor also banging on about the great model for community action in Portaferry. I must say they do do a great job and I admire that as they tend to work together and comply with the rules in good community economic development etc. But Ardglass has failed to aspire to these dizzy heights.

Thirdly, I have spoken to almost all the groups in the Arglass area over recent months and they as far as I can see are not interested in forming a collective or any such organisation. ADA is already constitutionally a ‘collective’ and it needs to be cognizant of this. So what is this all about? I understand that at least one local group leader was lobbied at the weekend from a local councillor, so is ADA is a flat spin in reality to muster support? They need to read their constitution thoroughly. Is this an attempt to move the centre of power from a democratic process where people are openly elected annually to the executive committee, or is it an attempt to again set up an unaccountable murky collective that the community is not wholly part of ?? Already ADA is involved in two companies that local people are not aware of – albeit one was required by the funder to protect the grant asset. So why the great secrecy?

Fourthly, despite my best advice as someone experienced, ADA chose to isolate me and reject advice I gave on planning at their Bath Street premises. After receiving a very robust email from a local councillor acting as project manager, it subsequently transpired that planning permission WAS required for ‘change of use’ and compliance to the conservation zone regulations. Enforcement letters were sent to ADA from the Council planning department and the group are currently looking at retrospective planning permission at best, and at worst, a refusal from the planners which will scupper the Ardglass Maritime Heritage project and lead to a probable call back of the £48,000 funding (approx). Walking on a tightrope is not the way to run a community group. At the moment, the Council planners are recommending a refusal on the signage at the Bath Street premises and this does not auger well for the project.

Fifthly, it has come to my attention that ADA since 2000 has received approximately £187,000 in grants (which included the improvement grant from the Down Rural Area Partnership.) This information is publicly accessible and verifiable on the websites of funders such as the National Lotteries, Danske Bank, Foyle Trust, Council etc. etc. And there may be more that we do not know about. That is the reason why we need regular AGM’s, to account for their efforts and the handling of public funds etc. Which leads me to my sixth point.

Sixthly, I believe in the four pillars of good community development practice: openness, accountability, transparency and democracy. ADA it appears has not had an Annual General Meeting for several years and is due to have one. This meeting that ADA purports to be calling should be an AGM, and nothing more, to give the groups, businesses and indeed the people of Ardglass an opportunity to get involved in shaping the future regeneration of Ardglass village and outlying area.

Therefore, that ADA is calling a meeting to create a collective of groups is again nothing but a pure deflection from the need to address good practice and sticking to the rule book which they don’t seem to want to do. But I again appeal to them to call an AGM with a full project report and financial report and appoint directors to their two companies which people in Ardglass virtually know nothing about.

Seventhly, if any meeting is called, ADA must be inclusive and act for all its members within the community. It cannot avoid this. To invite community groups and businesses and no members of the community is a flagrant breach of the terms of their constitution. All residents in the Ardglass district are deemed members of the ‘Association’. To set up another organisation or company is not the answer. What is needed is an executive committee that can facilitate the community vision and work out a strategy for future development.

ADA cannot cherry pick who it lets in to a meeting. ADA at the moment has NO mandate to do anything as it has not had the public approval from the members of the community of Ardglass, its members. This is a fundamental point that the ADA ‘committee’ have failed to accept and understand. They need to go to an AGM and step aside or put themselves up again for re-election. Those are the rules they should be abiding by as per the CCNI regulations and their constitution, instead we are seeing ADA trying to blind the people of this community with great riches in the future through the offer of empire building, power and regeneration. Let me ask, what have they achieved in the past 20 years? An IT centre which was my idea and I secured the funding for it in 2000. I’m sure we will see a great list of achievements presented as a response, but what I am hearing is that the same people year on year are having little impact on development and local people are in the dark. So this must change. We need community empowerment not control.

And any suggestion that ADA is not requiring an AGM until the marina issue is cleared up is a misconception. The CCNI have decide that Ardglass marina be a registered charity and that is that. ADA needs to accept it has lost its bid to own the marina and its assets including the approx £190,000 in the cash reserve in the bank. The marina does need significant funds to operate with to cover essential repairs and dredging. However, a community contribution could be negotiated and everyone would be happy I’m sure as a compromise. Let me caution that any attempt to create a hostile takeover of Ardglass marina will be resisted. The marina is a community economic development flagship for our community and must stay intact and its performance must be maintained and enhanced in line with wider community developments.

Eighthly, maybe ADA would like to clarify to the people of Ardglass why it has people from Downpatrick involved in filling in grant forms – most people in Ardglass village know nothing about this as they have not been consulted or even offered the opportunity of paid employment if that is the case. And maybe ADA too needs to explain if anyone is receiving payment for these services or a percentage. That is the whole point of having AGM’s. Which leads me to my next point. Surely devoting the expertise in grant form filling, an art in itself,  as an essential skill is something we should be nurturing in Ardglass.

Ninthly, why has ADA not fully utilised its new website provided for by the Down Rural Area Partnership grant and why does it not use its Facebook page or Twitter to communicate with the people of Ardglass?

There is low community engagement in the new Ardglass Heritage Centre and many people see this project as a white elephant. I am not a prophet of “doom and gloom” but quite realistic in my view which concurs with the members of my community. The reference to Margaret Smyth commenting on “recent negative publicity on social media” must relate to her own comments which people found unfair. I posted a thread on my own Jim Masson profile on Facebook and was rebuked for this too. I also replied to her comment and asked when ADA was calling an AGM. She deleted my fair comments on her own page (which I have screenshots of). My comment on my Jim Masson Facebook profile on Saturday 7th May received 138 Likes, 16 Shares and 40 Comments so far – not one adverse word was said against my position and everyone was fully in support of my views. 

Tenthly, it may come as a revelation, but I too agree with ADA on one key point, we should all be working for the good of our village. Where I disagree with them is that I want to see it done legitimately. There are a couple of groups which have boundary and other issues which in my opinion would not make good partners at the moment. We must all strive for good practice and not pay lip service to it, including ADA. Maybe in  the future we can all agree be be fully compliant and demonstrate good community development practice, which could entail training and awareness work where necessary.

Eleventhly, Margaret Smyth was never elected on to the ADA committee, she was coopted when the numbers had waned along with a couple of others.

Twelfthly, the younger generation need to get involved in ADA but there also needs to be a mix of steady and experienced heads. I have seen almost 20 years wasted in the Ardglass regeneration process – a whole generation – on a committee which has involved increasingly few   individuals. Shops and businesses have closed down, opportunities have been lost, tourism has declined, properties still lie vacant and the environment is still a mess eg rubbish on our beaches. Many issues are persistent and have not been addressed effectively.

The younger people of Ardglass have been denied the opportunity of being involved in the shape of their own community  and this is very sad. So I agree with Margaret Smyth:

let’s unite and boost Ardglass

by having a properly called, constituted and run AGM and let the people decide!

Time to waken up and smell the coffee!

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