Wednesday, 25 February 2015

What sort of council do you want?

"I believe this conflict has significantly damaged the town council’s reputation within the town and, to a lesser extent, with those external organisations we work with, and has had an adverse effect on member-officer relationship."

THESE are not my words, though you may have think I had written them.

They are the words of town clerk John Wright. The “conflict” he refers to is the war of words between councillors that has blighted this council’s reputation in the past couple of years.

The town clerk went further. He also said: “Those attending the annual town meeting will recall the high turnout, the low standing the town council had with those who attended and repeated claims the town council was bringing the town into disrepute.”

These statements were included in a report Mr Wright presented to the council last week on the authority’ risk management policy.

Mr Wright concluded that the conflict between councillors represented a “high risk”.
It was the second time that the town clerk had seen it necessary to warn councillors about their behaviour.

Mr Wright made this statement on returning to the council chamber after suffering a heart attack.

Those who attended last year’s annual town meeting are unlikely to forget. It was a bad night for Lyme Regis with emotions and tempers (including my own) running high.
There were calls for Mayor Sally Holman, elected to office on her own casting vote, to stand down. It was a shameful night.

It was the perfect occasion for the council to apologise to the people of Lyme for their behaviour and to state categorically that the conflict referred to by Mr Wright would end there and now.

No such apology came. In its place we had report after report of how well the town was being run, with senior councillor Mark Gage blaming all the council’s woes on “sensational” reporting in this newspaper.

He said he did not recognise the council through the columns of the View from Lyme Regis.  He has maintained that opinion throughout this year and will no doubt reiterate it when the next annual town meeting is held on April 10th.

I don’t see eye-to-eye with the town clerk on some issues. But I admire and applaud him for having the guts to express his views so strongly in the public arena.

Having recovered from his heart condition, you might well have thought he didn’t really want any additional stress. It would have been easy to put it to one side

We believe his comments exonerate this newspaper from the allegations made against us. 

We believe it is a total vindication.

We know our views are supported by  a number of town councillors who are not considered part of Mark Gage’s fan club. And we have significant support among our readers.

We also know that there are some of you out there who think that our robust coverage of council affairs has started to make some people feel sorry for Mr Gage and his cohorts to such an extent that they may vote for them again - if they stand. 

What is surprising, astonishing in fact, is that neither of the two senior members of the council, Mayor Sally Holman nor Councillor Gage, chairman of the powerful Strategy & Policy Committee, made any comment about the town clerk’s remarks.

In fact, they were totally ignored and all we got was a litany of the good work the council has been doing and how well the town is run.

What the mayor or Councillor Gage should have said at last week’s meeting was something on these lines: “We are quite sure the council members have taken on board what the town clerk has said and that he will never be put in that position again by the behaviour of councillors.”

They could then have added: “But it has not been all bad news. Here are some of the good things we have achieved this year ...”

The mayor was even quoted as saying: “This council is doing tremendously well.”

Well, I am sorry but I don’t buy into that. I’ve been around local government for a long time and I can’t recall a town clerk having to reprimand his councillors in such a manner twice! Not in this town, or indeed in any town that we cover or I have reported on over the years. 

In Councillor Gage’s glowing end-of- term report last week he refers to the great improvements the council has made in financial control. Er, what about a salary being paid into the wrong account, to someone who had not worked for the council for several years? 

And £10,000 being made in error or by mistake (whichever) to The Hub?

I’m not saying everything the council does is wrong,  far from it. And most of our coverage, at least 80 per cent, is about the day-to-day decision making, recorded accurately and more extensively than any other newspaper. If you don’t believe us, go onto our website and have a look at our archive.

Behaviour has been much improved in recent weeks and Mr Wright’s comments refer to the conflicts that have seemingly died down. But don’t think it’s all sweetness and light. There’s a continuing distrust between the council factions. 

Last week there was a snide remark about how much county councillor  Daryl Turner is paid now that he has a county chairmanship (which angered his sister, town councillor Cheryl Reynolds) and whenever veteran Stan Williams gets up to speak, a man who has served this town for more than 40 years,  an achievement which will never be equalled, certainly by the current crew, he is appallingly treated with tuts and groans and little respect from certain quarters. 

In a few weeks time, the residents of Lyme will be going to the polls. I don’t know how many will be putting their names forward - some say as many as 18. I will be surprised if that is the case.

This town must decide what sort of council it wants - one which will engage in robust but respectful argument and debate, or one which will force the town clerk to issue more reprimands because members are bringing the town and council into disrepute.

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