Strabane District Council consider restricting public and press from committee meetings

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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