The standards committee had previously (at its October meeting) made a series of recommendations, which included proposals for public questions to be in writing in advance of meetings, BUT the proposals were qualified with “where possible”, which allowed flexibility.
Then at November’s cabinet meeting – blog link here – https://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/cabinet_rubber-stamps_public_speaking_restriction/ the same recommendation was overturned with the words “where possible” deleted, which meant that all questions not related to items on the agenda must be submitted in writing two working days ahead of the meeting.
Following criticism at the November cabinet meeting (largely from myself and Cllr Giles) that the carefully debated recommendations from the standards committee were arbitrarily overruled, a senior officer said that the new recommendation would be returned to the standards committee.
This morning the new restriction was voted through by two votes to one. Voting in favour were Cllrs Frances Newth and Geoff Chamberlain. Voting against the proposal was Cllr Susie Bond.
Several thought-provoking comments from the independent (external) members of the standards committee were made about this approach. But unfortunately, the external members of the committee lost their voting entitlement as part of the Localism Act in 2011, meaning that councillors are now the only standards committee members with the right to vote. This is very wrong in my view.
Chairman, Cllr Graham Godbeer, said he didn’t like the idea of being “caught out” or “surprised” by questions coming out of the blue and wanted to give answers that were “meaningful.”
He said there would be a supplementary question option.
A senior officer added that the recommendation was not out of line with other councils in the area.
Cllr Frances Newth said she agreed with the recommendation. She said there was “nothing more dispiriting” to members of the public than to be told that the answer would be made in writing. She added: “It puts the chairman in a sort of desperate situation.”
Cllr David Mason (external member) said that councillors are “amateurs and generalists” and cannot be expected to know all the details of every project.
Cllr Susie Bond said that she thought the word “preferable” should be reinserted so that it wasn’t a hard and fast rule. The recommendation was too “prescriptive” she said and it wouldn’t be a good way forward to prevent someone from speaking if they had a concern.
External committee member, Ray Davison said he could understand the positive benefits of the revised recommendation but he agreed with Susie Bond that it was not a good way forward. He said it felt as though members were trying to eliminate a possible “surprise” or “ambush.”
He said that when he was lecturing it would have been very useful to have two days notice but actually it was a good thing not to know the questions in advance. Mr Davison suggested that residents might get the impression that councillors were trying to “control things.”
External member, Tim Swarbrick said that a clause might be inserted into agendas to let people know that it may be necessary to go away and research and get back to them, if the answer was not immediately known.
Cllr Steve Gazzard (not a member of the committee) suggested a way forward might be to have the new recommendation for a trial period.
Chairman, Cllr Graham Godbeer, said that he had intended to propose a six month trial period to see how it went.
This proposal was then voted through by two votes to one.
The standards committee minutes, including these recommendations will be voted on by the full council on Wednesday 26 February. The meeting will start at 6.30pm.