Chard Town council uproar
Over 60 people packed into the Guildhall in Chard this evening for a Chard Town Council meeting. This is not usual. However the point of interest for the public was discussion of a report into bullying. A report has been prepared for the town council about bullying at the council. To date councillors had not agreed to its release.
The agenda for the evening talked about adopting the report, about accepting the recommendations in it. What it did not mention was publishing the actual report.
The conduct of the meeting was, let us be generous, interesting. The Deputy Chair Claire Brown was standing in for the Mayor who was on holiday. The first bit of news for this observer, concerned public participation. In Chard questions can only be asked if they have been submitted to the town council in advance and approved. The Chair made it clear that the only people permitted to speak in public participation, were the people on her list.
That makes Chard the only town or parish council in Somerset to adopt such a draconian process. At any other council meeting, you can turn up on the evening and ask questions.
The Chair also made it clear that she would not allow more than 15 minutes public participation. She made it plain that if there were speakers who had not spoken after the time was up, that was tough.
It was going to be tough because a lot of people were scheduled to speak. This included Cllr Eggins who made a number of interesting points. However as a councillor he could have spoken to the meeting after public participation. It simply ate further into the time available for the public.
The public still had their say. And it was put forthrightly. Pauline Laughton expressed the hope that councillors would reflect and vote with the principle of zero tolerance for bullying.
Sarah Little suggested that the bullying behaviour has hindered proper function of council. It had cost taxpayers a lot of money. Can the council give us a date when this report will be released for public to view?
Does Chard Town Council care about taxpayer money. Do you care that you have cost us £150,000 in pay offs, Judicial review cost us £60,000 wasted man hours Rowley report £5,000 legal fees £5,000. I ask those who are guilty of bullying to resign. The moral question is how does this sit with your conscience?
Connor Payne asked in the same vein: if council agrees to publish report – will those who are implicated resign?
Mandy Best asked if councillors could honestly say the council has been open and honest with the public?
Lisa Bagg asked is the council selfless?
So the questions kept coming. At precisely 15 minutes the Chair called time. The public were furious. Several people had still not asked their questions. Members of the public were also angry that no attempt was made by the Chair to ask councillors to respond to the questions being asked.
It looked to the public gallery as if her sole intent was to shut down the public participation as rapidly as possible. The officers pointed out that the Chair has discretion to extend public participation. In the end she reluctantly agreed to give the remaining questioners just 2 minutes each, but (with one exception on an unrelated topic) refused to allow the questions that had been asked to be answered.
Eventually we staggered into the meeting agenda proper.
When it came to the discussion of the report into bullying Cllr Bulmer (Independent) had plenty on his mind. He told his fellow councillors “this whole episode does not sit easily with me. We have to adopt the recommendations. We were assured the report would be released before we adopted the recommendations. It hasn’t been. We haven’t heard back from the legal advice that the council sought. Has that legal advice been received? Councillors and members of public should see that legal advice. This is public money which could have been better spent on providing services.” Councillor Eggins (Greens) echoed the sentiment. “The public need to see the report to know what exactly we are adopting. We need to have a date when report is going to be published.”
Once again the Chair moved to shut down debate and called for a proposal. None of the points raised by Cllrs Bulmer or Eggins were answered or addressed. The motion was duly passed that the report be adopted and the recommendations acted on.
But as the meeting closed, there was still no word on when or even if, the public would see the report. A report that, let’s face it, they had paid for. At which point members of the public started demanding to know when the report would be published. The Chair ignored them. Eventually one of the officers took the initiative. She announced the report would be published tomorrow morning (Thursday 30 March).
There. Now that wasn’t hard was it? Why the Chair could not have put the Chard public out of their misery by announcing that simple fact at the start of the meeting, is anybody’s guess?
As an exercise in democracy and public engagement, it was an abject failure. That was certainly the view of the paying public as they walked out of the meeting. It is hard to escape the conclusion the rift between the town council and the public they serve grew into a chasm as a result of tonight’s meeting.
We will now be calling for a Judicial Review.
As a backstop, use Freedom of Information to ask for a copy of the report.
That will almost certainly be refused and can then be appealed to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO). As the public interest is so high, I would expect the ICO to force disclosure (possibly with some personal data redacted). During any appeal the ICO see the report in full.
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