• Yet another ruckus - an account of Ottery Town Council’s annual parish meeting

    1st May 2014 | News | Claire
  • I can’t hope to match Claire’s objectivity and care in reportage, but I thought it was worth noting my impressions of the Ottery Annual Parish Meeting below. There were a number of matters of concern to residents, which I mention in passing, fully aware that they deserve more, but unable to desist from the livelier bits of the meeting.

    Given the recent history of the town council in Ottery, the Parish meeting on the 29th April was potentially a tense one, and the turn out was substantial enough to indicate that all was not well.

    Initially, proceeding were bathed in consensual harmony – the mayor reported his year (leaving out the nasty bits) and various councillors and community figures reported their activities – health and Ottery hospital, (little change in the situation), Police (crime down), footpaths, allotments, Ottery in Bloom, TIC, finance – all good, and planning.

    Because of the general disquiet about planning, everyone’s ears pricked up at this one, but Cllr Carter’s report was, to me at least, an incomprehensible muddle, and he sat down to a small ripple of applause only because of a closing remark about the mayor’s 7-year term in office.

    Presentation of grant cheques were made to various societies and organisations, and the ‘citizen of the year award’ was made to John Gaffney, the editor of our peerless community newspaper. Photos and smiles abounded.

    Then came public questions, which glanced at road widening at North Street (I think – I wasn’t paying close attention to this speaker), a new planning application at Chineway, the lack of public toilets in the town, and then the elephant in the room finally made it centre stage when Philip Algar asked the confidentialitygate question, enquiring, inter alia, if the Council had yet done its training about how to run a town council.

    It did not go down well, and the mayor, while at first telling the meeting that mistakes had been made by all sides, then went on to reiterate the argument that he had made to the monitoring officer (his side of the argument – which had failed to convince the monitoring officer).

    There were further points from the floor, before the mayor, quite irrationally it seemed to me, made renewed accusations against Roger Giles about his conduct in office. Cllr Giles, who had held his peace with zen like calm until that moment, rose to make a his position clear.

    There were sporadic interjections of other business, but confidentialitygate kept coming back adding to the discomfort of the mayor and his close associates, except that is, the unique contribution by a lady whose carefully articulated eulogy to the town council and heartfelt criticism of Cllr Giles, all delivered in a powerful Spanish accent, offered them rare comfort. It added a note of colour though, and attracted a small ripple of appreciation.

    There was also a motion proposed and seconded that ‘the Council should not meet developers in private for pre application discussions’.

    The mayor, followed by Cllr Thurgood, put the view that OSMTC was a national trailblazer when it came to putting transparency and the public interest first. In meeting developers, they were only following orders, but they were doing it in the best possible way. There was no point in voting – the powers that be had spoken and any powers that existed in the meeting were therefore set at nought by the chairman – there was nothing to be done.

    I have since learned that this isn’t the case and that Sidmouth TC does not oblige developers in this way.  There was considerable disquiet in the room at this point – the Mayor did not take the proposal to debate or a vote and closed the meeting abruptly.

    In my view, there was a clear misunderstanding from the chair about whose meeting it was – this was not a town council meeting in public, it was a public meeting arranged by the town council, but the difference was lost on the chairman, and the TC ended up annoying even more a large proportion of those attending.

    I can’t place the next event in sequence with the above, but at some point near the end of the meeting, Cllr Lewis read out a statement about how appalled he was at things in general (to some barracking from the floor about his role in confidentialitygate), then he resigned. 

    Given a similar exit from the TC last time round, you have to wonder if he means it, or is just addicted to the dramatic moment. I don’t think it made the impact he may have hoped for, though it did cause some bemusement.

    What was saddest of all, was the clear demonstration that a hard core of the TC has not got over the resolution of confidentialitygate. They still believe in the rectitude of their cause and are resentful that the monitoring officers report did not absolve them.

    There was indeed shortcoming on both sides, but it is beyond doubt where the weight of the monitoring officer’s criticism is aimed, and refusing to accept that serves to perpetuate the divisions and hobble the council’s efforts. It has become a bullish matter of honour NOT to apologise to Cllr Giles, and the hostility of those opposing him is grows uglier each time it is exposed.

    Cllr Dobson’s erstwhile distinguished tenure of the mayoralty will crash in flames unless this matter is sorted out. Cllr Lewis has read the runes. The rest might do well to examine them too.