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Thursday, 3 February 2011

Report on Oakham Town Council Meeting 2 February 2011

Wednesday, 02 February 2011 February 2011 at 7.30 PM

Last night’s meeting of Oakham Town Council was most notable for the deliberate opaqueness which Councillors conducted their business. If an item on the agenda could be fudged or alluded to in the most obscure manner some Councillors appeared to take great delight in doing so. Furthermore it seemed to me that the Mayor and Councillor Dewis had come to some sort of agreement to be as passively aggressive as they could when avoiding correct procedure, knowing this would provoke ex-Councillor Martin Brookes, who has campaigned tirelessly for correct procedures to be followed. The Council started by accepting apologies from Cllr George Swiffin, who has not attended meetings for some time. The six-month rule appears to have been deliberately overlooked and members of the Council took great delight in proposing, seconding and accepting his apologies once more.

There were just two of us sitting on the public benches, we need more witnesses to this outrageous effort to ensure that accountability and transparency is avoided. Under the sadly less than brilliant chairmanship of the Mayor, Councillor Sharon Spencer, we reached item 9: Deputations by the Public and the Mayor looked at me inviting me, I assumed, to make some sort of speech on a petition I had delivered earlier in the day. I had not intended to say anything but merely said that I trusted that all Councillors had received a copy of a petition nominating Martin Brookes for his ‘Services to the Community’ (in writing his blog and particularly citing his commitment to ensuring transparency and accountability in local government). It was confirmed that the very efficient Deputy Town Clerk had indeed photocopied and distributed the nomination to all Councillors.

When we reached Item 11: ‘High Sheriff’s certificate for ‘Service to the Community’ the Mayor, rather pointedly, said that the Oakham Town Council, not the public, had been asked to make the nominations and invited nominations from Councillors, so justifying her decision to ignore the nomination of Martin Brookes by members of the public. Someone called Tommy Southern(?) was nominated although no one felt it appropriate to give the citation. All that we, on the public benches, could ascertain was that he was around 100 years old and that he qualified since he was alive during the 60 years of the Queen’s reign. If Tommy Southern(?) has done great service in the community the Councillors did not feel it right to explain what that service might have been. Councillors were not asked to vote on the public petition, nominating Martin Brookes, and after proposing and seconding Tommy Suthern(?) they then proceeded to ask for more nominations, rather than ascertaining which candidates were to be nominated and then voting on all candidates. I do wonder whether they realise quite how defective their voting procedure is. Unfortunately the Clerk doesn’t appear to understand voting procedures either, so the advice the Council receives from its trained officer is lamentable too. Having refused to consider Martin Brookes there was only one other nomination, but we, the public, did not know that Councillors would only be nominating two candidates. It all smelt of a private pre-meeting by allegedly non-political Councillors. However, rather more credibly, Cllr Lorna Gray then said she would nominate Pam Gilbert for her services to the Guides over a long period of time. At least we knew why Pam Gilbert was being nominated.

I am told that the next High Sheriff is to be someone called Peter Lawson who was ‘big’ in Arts for Rutland. It ill behoves a High Sheriff to ask a handful of people, who are rather shaky on Standing Orders and voting procedures, to nominate people known personally to them. I would have thought it more usual for the public to be asked for their views through the local press. Heigh Ho - never mind.

Item 12 FUTURE MEETINGS – To agree on an amended schedule of meetings up to the Local Government Elections due to be held on May 5th 2011. The Mayor, Sharon Spencer said: “Proposed changes are before you. Any comments?” As a member of the public I certainly did not have a copy of the proposed changes which were before the Council. The Council agreed to hold a Meeting on the 27th,whether that was the Annual Meeting or some other meeting I’m still not clear. However, we, in the public benches, were not aware which month they meant either. It could have been 27th of February, March, April or May. Since no month was given we were completely in the dark. Martin Brookes, from the public benches then asked: “What month.” At which the Mayor, Sharon Spencer, adjusted her shoulders, with all the nonchalance of a prize-fighter and replied to him: “Mr Brookes you know you’re not meant to ask questions.”

Clearly Martin Brookes was meant to be provoked and the Mayor was leading the attack. A sad day for the chain of office and an abuse of her position; her vendetta against Mr Brookes became palpable at this point. Cllr Alf Dewis turned around and smirked at us. Cllr Dewis has a wonderful smirk, full of menace and ill concealed belligerence.

The opaque and obscure dissemination of information constituted a clear and deliberate effort to exclude those on the public benches from discovering which month was being suggested. This truculent, confrontational, hostile and fractious Mayor was not doing her public duty in chairing the meeting. Sharon Spencer was purposefully and consciously aiming to ensure that we, the public, were not privy to what had been decided and this constitutes a calculated and intentional attempt to duck transparency.

This is not good enough.

Item 13 FLORAL DISPLAY AND WATERING CONTRACTS. It was decided that this year the Council would split this contract into two separate contracts. The Deputy Mayor, Mark Woodcock, appeared to ruffle an awful lot of feathers when he proposed that both contracts go out to tender, rather than be put by invitation to selected businesses on the Council’s register of approved companies. Sharon Spencer offered Mark Woodcock an opportunity to change his proposal, which he tacitly declined to do. The Mayor mentioned a ‘tight schedule’ by way of encouragement to Cllr Woodcock, to amend the proposal from an open tender. The Mayor then suggested: “What about approaching local companies?” Mark Woodcock was adamant – “Open tender with advertisements in the Rutland Times and Rutland Mercury.” So there it was, much to the consternation of Alf Dewis and Sharon Spencer – invitations to tender could be made to local businesses but it was also to be an open tender after all. Quite what had been going on behind the scenes one could only surmise.

Item 15 REQUEST FROM OAKHAM HOME GARDENS AND ALLOTMENT SOCIETY. The more I see of Cllr Adam Lowe the more impressed I am; a local manager of a business and a Special Constable. At an earlier meeting of the Council he had expressed doubts at the request for a subsidy of £600 towards renewing the fencing (some 84 metres) around the allotment, particularly since only one quote seemed to have been sought. He had volunteered to visit the site at the last meeting, and the Clerk had ensured that he too went along. Cllr Lowe proposed that the Council should agree to subsidise new fencing subject to ensuring that three quotes were sought. Cllr Lowe said: “If we give them money we need to know that money is spent wisely and three tenders are necessary.” He went on to point out that this would also be “fairer” and asked that the quotes be given to the Town Council. Hooray! At last we have one Councillor who understands that money can’t be thrown at projects without some sort of fiscal probity. What a ray of hope and light, without Cllr Lowe’s intervention, at the last meeting, we might once again have distributed Council largesse without ensuring proper financial accountability. Cllr Lowe’s description of what was being discussed was clear, to the point, sensible and easily understood by those on the public benches. He did not dissemble, talk in riddles and code or try to make his report to the Council opaque; a refreshing interlude of clarity in an evening of otherwise deliberate opacity.

By Item 16 CORE STRATEGY INVOLVEMENT AND HEARINGS even Cllr Dodds said she was ‘confused’ at the half communicated allusions to the item under discussion. Cllr Dodds was firmly shut up by the Mayor when she tried to insist that, under item 18: HOLLAND’S FAIR, the Fair use their own generators, rather than plug into the bandstand electricity point. She had anticipated item (ii) prior to considering (i) whether the fair should be held at all and what price was to be charged - £300. However, I would have thought it essential for Councillors to have known whether Hollands Fair would be using the electricity in the bandstand before voting on the price to be paid for the use of Cutts Close. It became obvious that some sort of strategy had been decided, prior to the meeting, on how to conduct the business of the evening.

Only Cllr Tor Clark voted against holding the Fair in Cutts Close. I rather think this was because he had, in the past, voted against the Cottesmore Hunt using Cutts Close and is determined to show a degree of consistency in his voting practices. But I might write to him to ascertain whether this is the case.

At item 18 (ii), rather than allow Cllr Dodds to propose that the bandstand electricity point should not be used by Holland’s Fair, Cllr Alf Dewis, with some rather over hasty alacrity, made the proposal - leaving Cllr Dodds standing at the starting gate. Cllr Dewis is always extremely keen to be seen to make a proposal ahead of the rest of the pack, but if seeing his name in print on the minutes gives him a small thrill then perhaps it would be churlish to cavil at a little minor juvenile enthusiasm for the apparent notoriety he seeks in appearing in the minutes as a ‘proposer’. I don't know, perhaps we shouldn’t try to deny him these small pleasures. Certainly the pleasure he gains by deliberately provoking Martin Brookes is more to be damned and in this he again succeeded at the end of the evening when the vote was put to exclude the public at item 21 to exclude the public from Item 22: OAKHAM FITNESS CENTRE.

Martin Brookes asked if someone would let us know when we would be readmitted to the meeting. Rather than allow the Mayor to answer Cllr Dewis said: “You can come back in in the morning and ask the Clerk tomorrow.” Cllr Dodds also said “You can ask Richard tomorra.” Cllrs Dewis and Dodds made it clear that they did not want the public back into the meeting after we had left. Martin Brookes is a bit of a stickler for correct procedure – and rightly so. Cllr Dewis seems to treat the local Council as his private fiefdom and is rather dismissive of standing orders or correct procedure, as are many other Councillors, including the Mayor. Martin Brookes pointed out to Cllr Dewis that it is usual to tell the public what decision has been taken, in camera, before closing the meeting – something, Martin Brookes pointed out to Cllr Alf Dewis that the RCC abides by with religious regularity. He also pointed out that Cllr Dewis often attends RCC meetings and knows what the procedure is. Jutting his chin out and smirking Cllr Dewis began to raise his voice – we left Very kindly Cllr Lowe said he would let us know when we could come back into the meeting.

The item Councillors wished to discuss in camera was: ‘Item 22: OAKHAM FITNESS CENTRE – To discuss various matters and to decide on an appropriate way forward.’ Clear as mud - another very obscure agenda item. This Council clearly does not relish public scrutiny. True to his word Cllr Lowe invited us back into the meeting. However the Mayor, intent on avoiding telling the public what had been decided, merely closed the meeting without any explanation of what decision had been made. I stood up after the meeting closed and said: “Madam Chairman you ought to tell us what decision you came to on item 22.” Pursing her lips in a thin line, Cllr Sharon Spencer replied: “We discussed the Fitness Centre. We deferred it to the next meeting. There’s nothing to tell you.” My reply was: “So tell us that before you close the meeting.” Cllr Dewis smirked at Martin Brookes with his usual provocative aggressive defiance. Unfortunately Cllr Dewis’ provocation finally hit its mark. He, it was, who had erroneously suggested that we come back in the morning to ascertain what had been discussed.

This Council needs a great deal of public scrutiny. Their resentment at following Standing Orders and allowing their actions to be understood is reprehensible. Their insistence on absolute privacy in policy decisions is not only disrespectful to the public, it smacks of a tyrannical mindset. It should be remembered that this Mayor said she was intent on attaining a ‘gold standard’ for this Parish Council. Unfortunately, with a democratically ill-educated cavalier coterie at the core of the Council, it is unlikely that even base metal could be forged into any sort of medal of democratic attainment. I would beg the Standards Committee to ensure that one of their number attends every Oakham Town Council meeting to ensure that such disrespect for the democratic process is not repeated. Unfortunately Martin Brookes was less than equable in his condemnation of Cllr Dewis’ smirking countenance after the meeting had been closed, but this meeting was nothing if not far short of the correct standards locals should expect from their Parish Councillors. Had the press been in attendance it might have made a difference. On the few occasions the press have attended the business of the evening has been better conducted. Unfortunately the press rely on regurgitated Council press releases, via the Journalism Lecturer, Cllr Tor Clark, to report the news in Oakham. You’d think Mr Clark’s journalistic grasp of correct democratic procedures might make him something of a stickler for accountability to the public. Wouldn’t you?

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