Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Do we need 14 council members?

WHEN Lyme Regis town councillors implemented their own code of conduct after being boldly warned by town clerk John Wright that they had to start behaving themselves, there was hope among many that the waring factions would put their animosities to one side and get on with the important business of running our town.

At the first meeting after the new code was introduced, our councillors looked positively chastened with stilted debate and barely a cross word all night. 

But the peace was short lived. I missed last week’s mayor choosing as I was preparing for an awards ceremony promoted by our sister paper, Pulman’s View from Axminster.

But like dozens of others, I have read the full transcript of the debate which we recorded and put up on our website. An abridged version of that debate is published in this week’s issue (see pages one and five). It was too long to print in full. I have also had a succession of people coming into the office and the general opinion seems to be that our esteemed elected representatives reached an all time low at last Wednesday’s meeting.

It seems to me the town has had enough. 

In covering council meetings in Lyme for 40 odd years I can’t remember another time when there were shouts of “stand down” and “resign” aimed at the mayoyal chair from the public gallery.
And the town certainly expects more of its councillors than the shouting of oafish comments like “bring it on”.

Mayor Sally Holman warned councillors to behave themselves but she made little impact.
District councillor George Symonds was so disgusted with the proceedings, questioning the legality of the whole process, that he walked out.  And I understand that former mayor Michaela Ellis, who was nominated to stand against Sally, also left the chamber in a “furious” state after the council went into committee.

The big discussion point was whether a resolution going back to 1979 that the mayor could only serve for two years if there were other councillors who wanted to stand was still valid.

Some councillors claimed they did not know such a resolution existed. Many of them were not even living in the town then so how could they know? There is a simple answer to that question. They should listen more carefully at the annual town meeting. 

Last year former councillor Ken Gollop asked Anita Williams, who chaired the meeting in the absence of the mayor, why that resolution was not adhered to last year when Sally broke with tradition and accepted a third  year despite another nomination for Chris Clipson.

Anita Williams said she was unable to answer the question and advised Mr Gollop to talk personally to the mayor.

To solve the matter, the council at last week’s meeting quickly rescinded the 1979 resolution, having been told by the town clerk it was perfectly legal to do so.

With shouts of “resign” from the public gallery, Sally looked totally shocked and admitted “it was not a comfortable position to be in”.

She also stated that no one had bothered to ask why she wanted to serve a third term or given her the chance to explain.

Well, in the interest of fairness,  we have. Sally explains her reasons on page five of this week’s paper, the gist of which is that there are various important projects and initiatives she has introduced which she wishes to complete.

So where is all this going to end? If the social networking sites are anything to go by, this Friday’s annual town meeting at the Woodmead Halls (starting at 7.30pm) is going to be an uncomfortable one for Sally in particular. Commitee chairmen have to attend to report on their year’s activities but other councillors do not have to be there. 

I have a number of concerns about this debate and the general behaviour of the council.  I have written before in this column about the low standard of debate, probably the worse I have witnessed, and the continual sniping among councillors if they don’t agree with each other. There is very little respect in the council chamber and the treatment of veteran councillor Stan Williams is nothing short of a disgrace. If anyone wants to listen to our recording of last week’s debate, we will be happy to provide a copy and you will know what I mean.

The dispute about the mayoralty will only add weight to the view of some that such a position is now outdated. Retaining the town’s traditions is a battle which has yet to be waged. But probably the most disturbing consequence of all is that such behaviour does not encourage other people to stand for council.  I know of a number who said they just did not want to be part of it.

Which begs the question. When Lyme goes to the polls next May will there be enough candidates to fill the 14 places? 

I have been told that only four of the current crop are likely to stand again, certainly I think at least half of the present council will not seek re-election.

So I ask yet again: does it need 14 people to run a small town like Lyme and is it time that number was reduced to 12 or even 10?

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