A FURIOUS former Mayor of Antrim has accused the council of mounting a ‘highly personalised’ attack on him for ‘daring to speak up against them’.
Adrian Watson was on the receiving end of a sharp rebuke when he claimed that ‘Antrim is being left behind’ in the Guardian a fortnight ago.
The former councillor and MLA warned of a ‘serious disconnect’ between civic leaders and many ratepayers after council signs were crudely defaced removing the word Newtownabbey.
That sparked an angry tirade from the outspoken local man, including barbed comments about expensive robes for councillors - a snip at just £549 apiece - the cost of a chauffeur-driven car for the Mayor, and the price of overseas visits.
He also questioned the perceived democratic deficit at council, claiming that the local authority is being run by a ‘cabal at Mossley Mill’. And he challenged the notion of important decisions taken behind closed doors.
The UUP man certainly did not pull his punches, but he probably did not expect to see a few flying his way.
But that’s precisely what happened in last week’s edition. Not content to turn the other cheek, the council decided to hit back.
They pointed to the significant investment in the Antrim area since the merger with Newtownabbey, adding that local rates had actually fallen.
They pointed to big spending on Antrim developments too, singling out the Gateway Centre and Allen Park among others - though in truth these were legacy projects drafted in the dying days of Antrim Council five years ago.
But then something rather curious. After playing the ball, they decided to play the man.
Turning to the vexed question of expensive robes, they noted that the decision to provide them was unanimously agreed by the chamber in March 26, 2015. Furthermore they added that it was ‘worth noting’ that a certain Councillor Watson was in attendance.
“Indeed, we believe that Adrian Cochrane-Watson wore the robes when he was a councillor.”
They added that the UUP man had got it wrong about Group Leaders’ Meetings, which he had suggested had usurped the chamber in terms of influence. Not so, said the un-named spokesperson. It was, in fact, ‘common practice contrary to Mr Watson’s remarks’.
He also got his knuckles rapped over his claim that the numerical advantage in the chamber - with 24 members from Newtownabbey to just 16 from Antrim - meant that the senior partners in the new arrangement held sway.
They sought to clarify that, stressing that the breakdown was ‘part of a democratic process of which council has no control or influence over’.
Speaking this week, Mr Watson remains unrepentant.
“I stand over everything I said. Clearly I struck a nerve,” he said.
“I am slightly concerned, however, at the council’s response.
“Here we have an anonymous public servant making a highly personal attack on a named ratepayer - and a former Mayor, no less.
“Is this what we have come to in Antrim and Newtownabbey? Staff sent off to check through old voting records in a bid to publicly embarrass someone who dares criticise them?
“I was a councillor for 20 years and I’ve never seen the like of it. Would it have happened in the days of Antrim Borough Council? Of course it wouldn’t.
“It’s simply not acceptable for public money to be squandered by council to settle scores. It’s simply unacceptable - and in my opinion it is unprofessional.
“Their job is to provide public services, not to wage public wars with their own ratepayers.
“I am entitled to have an opinion. Just because they don’t like it does not give them the right to mount some sort of half-cocked witch hunt against me.”
And he added that the Council should ‘get their facts straight’.
“They claim that I wore a robe and that’s simply not true,” he fumed.
“If you are going to try and make a laughing stock out of me, then at least do me the courtesy of getting it right.”
He added: “What I said was borne out of frustration - and I’m not alone.
“Since the article appeared I have been contacted by many staff, past and present, and not one of them said I’d got it wrong. Quite the contrary - they agreed with me.”
He added that the experience will not prevent him from ‘fighting for the good people of Antrim’.
“I will not be gagged.”
The council was asked to respond to the issues raised by the UUP man, but this week it had significantly less to say for itself.
“Following the article which reported Mr Watson’s views, the Council was obliged to put the record straight based on facts which is entirely fair and reasonable,” said the spokesperson.
“A simple search of Council minutes, which are available on the Council’s website, confirms who attended meetings when decisions were made.”
And what about the claim that the former rep was indeed a dedicated follower of civic fashion?
“A number of councillors recall Mr Watson wearing a council robe,” the spokeswoman said.