Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Standing Orders! Six of One and Half A Dozen of the Other!


It's been awhile since I watched a bit of theatre but, on reflection, in terms of theatrical entertainment, last night's Town Council meeting was a good one.

In terms of getting anything done for the town, they achieved nothing.

The trouble is, the Council is hung, and on the key debates of the evening, to do with internal Policies of  Council, voting was split, along the lines of {Labour + Lib Dem Cllr Robin Hines} versus {other Lib Dems and Independents}, with the mayor having the casting vote.

Standing Order 7a  used to say (version as amended 30th January 2017) "PRESENCE OF NON-MEMBERS OF COMMITTEES AT COMMITTEE MEETINGS. Any Councillor may attend, and with the permission of the Committee Chair speak on particular matters at a meeting of a Committee or Sub-Committee of which he is not a member, but may not vote."

Some meetings were going on too long, argued the Labour side, so they sought a change to this Standing Order, to ensure that non-members of a committee would not be allowed to participate in the meeting unless the meeting had a public participation session. The counter argument from the chair of Corporate Services - arguably the  'keeper of the rules' - was that it was up to members to point out to the chair the time, and if necessary to invoke another policy:

Standing Order 1w. "A meeting shall not normally exceed a period of 2.5 hours unless by agreement of those Members present."

Then, provoked by repeated speeches from the same councillors arguing the same points over and over again, the chair of Corporate Services reminded the meeting of Standing Order 13o RULES OF DEBATE - MOTIONS "Unless permitted by the chairman of the meeting, a councillor may speak once in the debate on a motion" (some exceptions to this rule are applicable) and suggested that as changes to Standing Orders were being sought, they should abide by them.

I don't think anyone in the meeting really wanted to stifle anyone's contribution, just that sometimes some of them think too much allowance is given to non-members at committees which prolong proceedings; they all seemed fairly content with the rule that says that non-members of committees aren't allowed to vote on decisions. I've been at other meetings, Town Partnership for example, where the chair has only allowed non-members to speak after allowing most time to members. That seems good practice to me. At Xerox we practised Lean Six Sigma, and if anyone is familiar with Kaizen, they will know that a properly planned efficient meeting knows what it can accomplish in a given amount of time, with a member of the meeting detailed to be the per-item timekeeper.

With the Labour group losing their motion (6/7), another motion was passed (6/7), ultimately changing rule 7a to read,  "PRESENCE OF NON-MEMBERS OF COMMITTEES AT COMMITTEE MEETINGS. Any Councillor may attend, and with the permission of the Committee Chair speak on particular matters at a meeting, that is not in private session, - of a Committee or Sub-Committee of which he is not a member, but may not vote".

To me, that isn't plain English, and though understood now (I wonder if it really is?), future councillors may wonder at the sense of it.

PLANNING

On a separate issue, I attended a Planning meeting last week, and I still find it quite alien as a member of the public to be invited by the chair of that committee to participate throughout the meeting and sit at the table with elected representatives. Whilst I had things to say and was allowed to, I'm sure that the meeting was prolonged because of this.  I was uncertain about any rules under which I could speak, I was unsure how councillors potentially opposed to the chair's invitation would take my comments; I was on an uncertain footing.

As a member of the public, if I have comments to make on an application, I can make those direct to the planning authority; I don't need to make them through the Town Council. Controversial issues could arise, with members of the public who are oblivious to the Council's rules of conduct or who have no knowledge of Standing Orders.  Even members of the council scarcely know those rules, especially at the start of a term of office, never mind 2 years in. So, I am a bit reserved on this practice and wary of what might go wrong.

PRESS & MEDIA

In Public Questions, I asked for Corporate Services to review their policy and define what "Media" means. Press Protocols does not define "Media", but does state, "Copies of Agenda and Minutes sent to Members for meetings of the Council or its Committees will be posted to the Media, without charge, at the same time." Recently staff at HRTC had declined to send things to me in my capacity as editor of Houghton Regis News Desk because Media referred only to formally recognised press and media organisations such as the local newspaper. I reminded the members that the News Desk had been operating since 2010 and there is no local newspaper specifically for the town and that these days 'Media' also includes the Internet.

I also requested a notification system so that members of the public can be informed when new items are posted to the Town Council website. I already subscribe to such a service operated by Chalgrave Parish Council and find it very useful.

CODE OF CONDUCT ISSUES

They seem to be sorting themselves out; no point writing anything about it here. But it's covered here.

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Power of Social Media

Some images here showing the numbers of people reached by a few posts advising of M1 closures last year. I made the signs up in Transport Heavy font, the one commonly used on real road signs.
Houghton Regis News Desk had around 4,000 likes; Dunstable News Desk hadn't been online long, and had around 450 likes.