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SEATON: Let the people speak!

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

A SEATON councillor has failed in a bid to change the town council rules so that the public can have a greater say in council matters.
At the November meeting of Seaton Town Council, two members of the public tried to raise issues during the public discussion session on matters that were not included on the agenda.
But they were prevented from doing so by council chairman and Mayor Gaynor Sedgwick because the council’s standing orders – the rules by which councilors have to follow – dictated that the public could only speak on agenda items.
Former chairman Bob Buskin, a regular attender at council meetings, left that meeting in disgust, maintaining that during his chairmanship the public had been able to speak on all matters whether they were on the agenda or not.
At last week’s full meeting Councillor Tony Woodman tabled an agenda proposition that the council’s Standing Orders be changed to fall in line with Sidmouth Town Council in that members of the public be allowed to raise all matters relating to council business.
In an impassioned speech, Councillor Woodman, a former jounalist, said he was raising the matter because be believed in “free speech”.
He continued: “Just a month ago we all remembered those who paid the ultimate price to give us this and many other advantages and I don’t believe the current situation in this council is what they fought for.
“Also as the world mourns the death of Nelson Mandela we should remember that he was a man who fought for freedom and non-oppression of anyone.
“We are here to represent and work on behalf of the people of this town and those people have a right to question what we as councillors are doing and tell us what they would like us to do.
Form of gagging
“I cannot accept any form of gagging people from speaking and this is what our current policy does. It deprives the residents of this town an opportunity to speak. There can be no doubt about that. Those who fought and died for our freedom would cringe at the thought.
“All we get is that our standing orders say this and our standing orders say that. Well, at a recent training session it was quite clear that John Vanderwolfe felt our standing orders, and, indeed our Code of Conduct, needed looking at and I believe it is time for a complete review of both.
“Furthermore, Madam Chairman, you have constantly used the workings of Sidmouth Town Council as an example of the way forward for us. If you really believe this is the case then you must agree that we adopt the Sidmouth arrangement in relation to the public speaking at a council meeting. East Devon District Council has also been looking at this subject with proposed changes.
“Our previous chairman, Councillor Peter Burrows, was governed by the same standing orders that you now claim we must abide by. Yet, not once did he stop a member of the public from raising any issue he or she wanted. In fact, on many occasions he went that extra mile to allow people to express their opinions. That, Madam Chairman, is democracy at work and what so many fought and died for.
“Before someone says we will be here all night if this happens may I point out that this period would still be 15 minutes with the chairman’s discretion to extend it if necessary. It would just allow members of the public to speak freely.
“Taking all this into account, I would propose that the ‘Public Question Time’ be changed to ‘Public Speaking Time’ and that standing order 1d be changed to read: ‘Members of the public are permitted to make representations, answer questions and give evidence in respect of any matter which relates to the responsibilities of the town council or related to matters the council could influence.’”
Councillor John Meakin, a former chairman, pointed out that they were councillors 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and members of the public could approach councillors to raise matters whenever they wanted to.
Councillor Burrows confirmed that he allowed members of the public to speak on any matter relating to council business and pointed outthat question time never went over the allotted 25 minutes.,
“This was democracy in action”, he added.
Councillor Sedgwick said she also believed in free speech and she stressed that she was following Standing Orders and that members of the public could always call into the council offices to ask questions.
Referring to the situation at Sidmouth, Councillor Sedgwick said members of the public had to give 24 hours notice of their questions in writing before the meetings and that councillors had no obligation to give answers.
She also pointed out that many other councils in the area adopted similar Standing Orders as Seaton Town Council, including, Honiton, Chard and Lyme Regis.
Councillor Sedgwick said she could not allow Councillor Woodman’s proposal to be put to the meeting as the matter had been agreed at the October meeting and to change that decision they would have to wait six months or the request be signed by six councilors.
Councillor Woodman replied that if that was the case why did the clerk (Penny Clapham) allow the proposition to be included on the agenda.
And he added: ”There are three people here tonight who want to ask question but have been told they cannot speak because it is not on the agenda. I think that is wrong.”
Councillor Burrows agreed, stating: “If we cannot deal with this for another six months why was Councillor Woodman told it could not go on the agenda? He should have been told this or that six councillors’ signatures should have been provided with it. If you are going to do by the rules, you do it by the rules.”
The clerk replied that Councillor Woodman had submitted a written proposal that the matter be placed on the agenda.
Councillor Sedgwick refused to allow the proposal to go forward and no seconder was sought.
Afer the meeting Councillor Woodman said that had he known he believed he would have been able to secure signatures of six councillors supporting his proposal.


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