I sought the assurance at Monday’s (6 February) Full Council meeting, following a planning meeting the previous Monday (30 January), where I inadvertently discovered that the external door had been locked when the meeting started at 7.30pm.
During the first few minutes of the meeting I unlocked the door and checked outside in case anyone was trying to get in.
When I returned to the council chamber I enquired whether the decision to lock the door had been lawful. After a brief exchange of views, planning chairman, Paul Carter asked deputy mayor, Ian Holmes, to unlock the door as it had been locked again after I had unlocked it.
Cllr Holmes said that he had locked the door at 7.30pm to avoid embarrassment at having to turn people away from the meeting, following the introduction of a controversial new policy of limiting members of the public at council meetings to 20, which was agreed at the Full Council meeting last month.
I was not present at this January meeting but I am aware that Cllr Roger Giles argued against the proposal on the grounds that turning people away from public meetings is anti-democratic.
After raising the issue of the locked door on 30 January, I was reminded of the new 20 people limit policy. However, there were 13 members of the public present.
The reason given for limiting members of the public to 20 in the council chamber was fire regulations and health and safety. The policy was proposed after a planning meeting in December where Local Development Framework Panel chairman, Cllr Mike Allen gave a presentation.
This event attracted around 70 members of the public and the Spanish class in the room next door to the council chamber had to be moved upstairs to allow people to gather to hear proceedings.
Councillors used microphones to ensure that everyone could hear the presentation and subsequent debate.
Several of us were thrilled that so many people had turned up to this meeting which meant they cared about their community and took an interest in the activities of their local representatives. However, it seemed that not everyone shared this view.
There appeared to be some anxiety in the lead up to the planning meeting on 30 January because on the agenda was the long-term housing figure for Ottery St Mary. Some animosity was directed at Roger Giles for circulating a leaflet with this information on. However, this was one or two lines in a four page leaflet.
It seems that it was this anxiety that prompted the decision to lock the external door at 7.30pm on Monday 30 January.
The subject of limiting the numbers of public to 20 was raised again at the meeting on Monday (6 February) and the message was given again that a different venue would be booked if the council knows in advance that there will be a big turnout.
However, it is not always possible to know in advance what the turnout will be.
I do feel very strongly that it is wrong to turn members of the public away from council meetings and it is the responsibility of the council to make every effort to accommodate people.
It is hard enough to convince people that their views make a difference or are taken into account as it is.
It is reassuring to know that the door will not be locked again during a public meeting but I believe (and I know I speak for Roger Giles here too) that Ottery St Mary Town Council must do their utmost to find a way around this issue and do their utmost to accommodate people, to ensure they are able to take part in the democratic process. This is surely one of the main reasons why Ottery St Mary Town Council exists.