Slugger O'Toole

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Strabane District Council consider restricting public and press from committee meetings

Sat 19 January 2013, 8:27pm

Back in 2009 I talked a lot on my own blog about the varying levels of accountability and transparency of local councils. Many councils did not publish council online. Some did not publish accurate – or any – lists of upcoming meetings that the public could attend. When FOIed for minutes, some obfuscated, some delayed, and at least one required an internal review to get an electronic copy (though they printed and scanned them first to reduce the searchability).

During the last round of RPA council merging talks, the Castlereagh/Lisburn transition committee at times battled itself over whether its negotiations, meetings and minutes should be kept strictly private and “in committee” away from the ears and eyes of the rate-payers who had elected them and whose tax was funding the additional annual allowance of around £2,700 for being on the committee. All this despite a Department of the Environment Local Government circular stating that “to ensure transparency, Transition Committees will make arrangements for public access to the decision making process”.

Strabane District Council logoThe Strabane Chronicle (and others) report that discussions are ongoing at Strabane District Council to “restrict press attendance from its weekly committee meetings”. Presumably, public attendance would also be restricted.

Once a week elected representatives meet to hear reports from heads of departments including Economic Development, Environmental Health and Culture, Arts and Leisure. It is these meetings that council is considering holding behind closed doors.

The Belfast Telegraph add that one of reason for the proposals is

… that some councillors are reluctant to speak their minds freely in front of the Press and the public during committee meetings.

I cannot find any calendar or list of committee meetings on the Strabane District Council website – so it’ll take effort for members of the public to phone up and ask. There is a simple mention that the “full council meets on the second Tuesday of each month” but fails to specify a time. In fact, minutes from last quarter of 2012 suggest that it is more likely to meet on the second Monday of the month at 7pm.

Outside of Belfast, the only external observers at many council meetings – whether full monthly council meetings or smaller committee meetings – will often be local weekly newspaper journalists. Some meetings will have no outsiders present. I’ve randomly turned up at committee meetings in Lisburn and been the only person in the room who wasn’t either a councillor or a council official.

Council committee meetings can already go dark at any point by voting to conduct a piece of business “in committee”, causing the room to be emptied of public and press. However, some at Strabane are oddly arguing that rather than restricting accountability, the internal and ungratified proposals would boost transparency! Back to the Strabane Chronicle:

Responding to concerns raised, interim chief executive of Strabane District Council, Danny McSorley said that any change in committee proceedings of council would lead to more openness and transparency. He also stressed that no decision had yet been taken.

Mr McSorley said, “Officials have been tasked to examine a range of options with the objective of creating more effective committee meetings and creating more openness and transparency in council business. Among the options being considered is a reduction of the extent of business which is transacted confidentially during council committee meetings.”

He added, “If this option were to be adopted, it would increase the availability of reports and minutes to the press in advance of the ‘full council’ meeting, beyond what is provided currently,” added Mr McSorley.

The NUJ’s president Barry McCall said:

Any plans to ban the press from local council committee meetings would be a direct attack on democracy and an attack on press freedom. Any efforts to ban the press are repugnant to an open and democratic society and will be strongly resisted by the NUJ. The union will raise its concerns with the District Council immediately.

In the run up to the shadow formation of the new councils, it would be useful if councillors and council officials would think about ways of maximising public trust in the new institutions and find ways to boost accountability and the transparency of local government processes.

Rather than keeping the press and public out of meetings, surely they should be encouraging members of the public to attend, accurately signposting the dates, times and locations of meetings along with providing the agenda and briefing papers in advance? Maybe time for the DoE to impose minimum levels of accountability as part of any reforms?

Of course, while Strabane is also thinking about excluding members of the public, it isn’t the only council to fall out of love with their local media:

(all from recent Hold the Front Page news stories)

UpdateHold the Front Page have run a story about this too.

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Comments (15)

  1. This is totally ridiculous and should be fiercely resisted (peacefully) by the citizenry.
    If some councillors are reluctant to speak their minds freely in front of the Press and the public during committee meetings, then they shouldn’t stand for election.

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  2. Nevin (profile) says:

    “Maybe time for the DoE to impose minimum levels of accountability”

    The Office of the Information Commissioner has published a Model Publication Scheme; councils will have endorsed it but DOE isn’t enforcing it. Even a watchdog like the Northern Ireland Audit Office has to be encouraged to be more accessible.

    “Council committee meetings can already go dark at any point by voting to conduct a piece of business “in committee”

    Moyle just has two meetings in the month. Last Monday it went ‘into committee’ without a vote being taken. I was the only member of the public present. The behaviour of members was appalling. Perhaps I need to turn up with some people of significance to shame them into acts of civility :)

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  3. Red Lion (profile) says:

    Nevin, what does the local paper up there in Moyle make of it???

    Perhaps you should be making them aware of it???

    I find that a lot of local papers depend on churning out court reports and council meetings just to fill their pages.

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  4. Nevin (profile) says:

    “He added, “If this option were to be adopted, it would increase the availability of reports and minutes to the press in advance of the ‘full council’ meeting, beyond what is provided currently,” added Mr McSorley.”

    But we already have the Model Publication Scheme:

    We would expect information in this class to be available at least for the current and previous three years.

    • Timetable of council meetings
    • Agendas, officers’ reports, background papers and minutes of council committee and sub committee meetings

    This information is supposed to be available to the public, not just to the press.

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  5. The Raven (profile) says:

    So did this efficiency initiative come from the councillors? Or was in agreed by the councillors after a suggestion by the very busy Chief Executive? And if this comes to pass in Strabane, will we see a similar initiative roll out in Omagh District Council?

    Of course what people have to realise is, is that business is often interrupted in the chamber by grandstanding by Councillors looking to ensure they make the front page of the local rag.

    Which begs a couple of follow-up questions – what is the role of a councillor? Strategic and operational direction? Or just ‘scrutiny’? (read “criticism after the fact”).

    And why should we get too precious about this? The total pot which councils look after in NI is around 4% of the NI budget; there are much worse things going on behind closed doors which rarely if ever have the same level of reporting done on them…

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  6. Nevin (profile) says:

    Red Lion, there used to be two journalists there but one of the papers has been pruning staff. The journalist there on Monday night left at the same time as me but I’ve not yet read coverage of the debacle; I’d expect a sanitised account will appear :)

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  7. Nevin (profile) says:

    “there are much worse things going on behind closed doors which rarely if ever have the same level of reporting done on them…”

    There’s certainly no shortage of material for independent-minded bloggers, The Raven.

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  8. son of sam (profile) says:

    One wonders whether this is an initiative from the interim Chief Executive or the Councillors in Strabane.I’m sure the dominant party on the Council would wish matters to be as transparent as possible,wouldn’t they! As Red Lion above points out,many local papers are dependent on reporting of council business to fill their pages.Despite the high sounding comment from the N U J, it’s unlikely that much of the regional press will take a principled stand on the issue.One particular reporter on the Derry Journal seems inclined to report the utterances of only Sinn Fein councillors !!In a few years time,it’s probable that Strabane and Derry councils will be amalgamated under the legislation presently proposed at Stormont .

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  9. Living in England, this secrecy seems rather odd. All council meetings are open, and several councils video-record the meetings and put them online. See, e.g.

    http://www.oxford.gov.uk/PageRender/decCD/CouncilandDemocracy.htm

    (Near the bottom are the links to all the council meetings.)

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  10. Boglover (profile) says:

    Let’s say that that RPA requires the new councils to post video coverage of their meetings online (as above), then the first question that will be asked is who’s going to pay for this. Despite the small financial cost and huge benefits for democracy, it is unlikely to be funded.

    Too many of our MLAs have the breadth of vision of a gnat, fostered by their experiences from councils. How likely are we to get effective MLAs, and indeed effective new councillors, when all that seems to matter is that they deliver for their own tribe and not for NI society as a whole?

    Am I alone in finding this all thoroughly depressing? I think not, when we consider at the turnout at elections.

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  11. babyface finlayson (profile) says:

    Alan
    Good piece.
    A thankless task I am sure, monitoring the pooterish goings-on in council meetings.
    You do it so we don’t have to! That could be your motto.
    If as The Raven says the budget is such a small percentage it is hard to understand the need for such secrecy.
    What exactly are they so coy about?

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  12. Barnshee (profile) says:

    “What exactly are they so coy about?”

    One thing that they are very coy about is the “expenses allowance” for trave2which is so generous (with oter peoples money) they and the staff have to pay tax on it.

    Want to embarass an MLA or council member –?

    Ask how much tax he had to pay on his allowances

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  13. Pia_Lugum (profile) says:

    There are often items of council business that often can have serious legal or financial implications for specific local people in the district. It is not always a good idea to publicly air their addresses or names – or details that would allow others (inc the media) to influence them or cause improper profiteering or meddling. Something such as a right-of-way dispute for example.
    These items should properly be discussed ‘in committee’. If a way forward can be formulated then the committee’s recommendations can be forwarded to the full council meeting for ratification. Simple!
    Unless one or more councillors at the full meeting feel they have a better way than the committee! Then they can still grandstand and/or amend the committee recomendation. I can’t see the problem in all of this…

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  14. To plat devil’s advocate, the problem – as suggested above – is that some councillors use open meetings for their own purposes.

    Playing up for the Press, grandstanding, being insulting or carrying out a stunt get discussions nowhere, it is argued, while private conversations get results faster. A good example is the ‘hot house’ peace process negotiations in some stately home or castle which allowed participants space to discuss stuff they couldn’t do in full public glare.

    Agin that, secret deals tend to unravel, and when they do, public confidence takes a bashing…

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  15. hfmccloy (profile) says:

    The councils should be open, they make deals all the time and people should be allowed to know what about and who with.

    When you sit back and look at the average council would you feel safe in their decisions?

    Take Magherafelt Council for example : http://savethemid.weebly.com/special-meeting-with-nhsct–magherafelt-council-minutes.html these minutes were only released through a FOI, but in the council minutes of there sitting it only noted that the meeting took place.

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