Saturday, 04 December 2021

Council leader in row with villagers over transparency

GORING Parish Council is to consider recording its meetings following criticism that its written minutes are not satisfactory.

The idea was suggested at the council’s most recent meeting, where the chairman clashed with residents over the issue of its
transparency.

Villager David Bermingham said that recording the meetings would resolve the issue.

The minutes are the official record of the meetings and are kept by the parish clerk.

However, since Laura White took over the role in March last year only decisions made by the council have been included without any information about what was said in discussions, as happened previously.

At the council’s previous meeting — its first in-person gathering for 20 months — residents complained that the minutes had become too vague.

In a report to the latest meeting, Ms White said that she has been on three courses where it was stressed minutes should record decisions and not be a verbatim record of a meeting.

She attached a copy of the council’s minutes from 1926, which she said were similar to hers.

Ms White said: “Change can be difficult for many people and my appointment as clerk occurring on the same day as the country was plunged into lockdown due to a global pandemic could certainly give the perception that the council has changed far more than maybe it needed to.

“Certainly, if we had been able to meet legally in person, the change of clerk would have been smoother and appeared to not have been such a dramatic change. However, the minutes would still be as they are.

“This is not to say that the minutes of the previous clerks were incorrect. I am applying the legislation in a slightly different way in accordance with the training that the parish council has paid for me to attend.”

Mr Bermingham said the clerk had missed the point.

“The point is not that what’s being done is unlawful or not best practice — all of these things are a given — it’s the fact that the council’s new approach to the minutes is just gloriously unhelpful,” he said.

“It doesn’t actually give anybody who’s looking or coming to this afresh or hasn’t been at a meeting any substance of what’s going on.”

He said that if the council was unwilling to change its stance and make the minutes helpful to the public, then it should agree to have the meetings recorded.

Mr Bermingham said: “If I want to know what’s going on at the district council I simply go on to their website, click on the link and look at an entire meeting in all its video glory. I can see no reason why you wouldn’t do that here. I cannot believe for one moment that this council actually wants people not to know what is going on.

“If we can’t manage that, maybe just an audio recording on your website. At that point the minutes of the meeting cease to be any kind of an issue.”

Councillor Bryan Urbick suggested that the council should discuss the idea of filming a meeting but pointed out that South Oxfordshire District Council had had to invest in a complicated recording system.

Maggie Filipova-Rivers, who represents Goring on the district council, said a live stream would be very expensive but a recording for use on a website afterwards could be good enough.

Council chairman Kevin Bulmer said he liked this idea as a compromise between keeping people informed and not spending a lot of money.

However, he became involved in a row with residents after refusing to answer some questions during the public session.

The 10-minute session takes place at the start of meetings when members of the public can speak on a subject that is on the agenda.

Councillor Bulmer said the session was for members of the public to make representations to the council, not a question-and-answer session.

Villager Stephanie Bridle complained that the public session had started before the advertised start time of the meeting, adding: “I believe that the public session is part of the council meeting.”

Cllr Bulmer replied: “No, it’s not, Stephanie, you’re incorrect. The public session is not part of the meeting.

“This is a meeting of the parish council and the public are entitled to attend that meeting, not take part in it.”

Mrs Bridle said: “If people want to come and ask legitimate questions of the council and they read that the council meeting starts at 7.30pm and they can’t get here before then, then you’re actually disenfranchising people.”

Cllr Bulmer replied: “No, I’m not, Stephanie. I’m afraid you’re completely wrong on that.

“It says on the agenda that prior to the start of the meeting questions and comments can be made.”

Mrs Bridle asked to refer to Henley Town Council’s public participation session.

However, Cllr Bulmer replied: “No, because we are not Henley Town Council.”

Residents exclaimed that this was outrageous.

Cllr Bulmer said: “I’m sorry if you don’t like it” before he was interrupted by residents asking if they should “lump it”.

Resident Jim Emmerson, who helps produces Goring Gap News, asked why the council did not make it clear that if the public wanted to speak they should arrive earlier.

Cllr Bulmer replied: “It is for the chairman of the meeting to decide. I chose to start the meeting early because people were here and I wanted to get through it so we didn’t spend the whole night going round in circles, which we appear to be doing at the moment.”

Mrs Bridle’s husband Ron said: “That’s rather like a train moving off before the timetable just because there’s a few people sitting on the train.”

He added: “When is the budget meeting for this next year and is it going to be a public meeting like it used to be or is it going to be called a workshop to exclude the public?”

Cllr Bulmer replied: “I’m sorry, Ron, that’s an outrageous thing to say. The parish council’s budget is always set by the parish council in public session and all councils have workshops to run through the details of that budget before it is presented to the council.

“There’s nothing secret about that, that’s the process.”

Mrs Bridle said that last year the public were excluded from making any representations.

Cllr Urbick proposed that the council should invite the public to submit points for consideration before the budget workshop and members agreed.

Cllr Bulmer told the residents: “You seem to be under the impression that the public can come along and interject whenever they feel like it. That is not how it works. If people don’t like it, next time there’s an election stand and put yourselves forward. That’s the way the democratic process works.”

Residents shouted that they would and Mr Emmerson said: “Hopefully, quite a few of us will run.”

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