Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Council Meeting Farce:
Mayor Tears Off Chain of Office and Storms Out

Wymondham Mayor Dianne Fernee

A furious  and ultimately farcical town council meeting tonight. People who read this might remember that I wrote a blog post with the title A Disgraceful Meeting (7 February 2012) It was about the affair of the local King's Head Meadow, a prime site in the centre of town, where the football team play. Briefly, the football pitch was wanted by a national supermarket chain and there was talk that the chain had already agreed a purchase with the council without any public consultation.

The earlier blog gives a good deal more detail about the background. That meeting was wild and tightly packed, with standing room only.  This is what happened then.

The special meeting tonight is held in a hall clearly too small to accommodate all the people wanting to attend. An interesting decision. We are dangerously crowded, mostly standing and there are people waiting outside. The mood is ugly, or ugly-ish 

The public are allowed to ask questions, none of which is answered in any way that might be considered an answer. There are many questions involving timing and the keeping of records. Those very few responding from the council have, er, no records of when things happened.  

The one answer that is eventually given about timing quotes some apparent stipulation that things must be done one particular way, that that way requires an immediate answer, and that time is so pressing that the supermarket's application must be pushed through now to compete with two unnamed other possible sites. 

Two ex-councillors, very politely, query the question of timing and procedure. Their experience is different. Their experience is not ancient but very recent: their queries are not answered.  

The chief question of why the council want to sell the space to the supermarket is never answered, though all councillors are pressed to answer it. Almost all sit there like dummies. 

The affair goes on. The supermarket in question has withdrawn and a different one has taken another site, not quite so central. Nevertheless people continue to talk of corruption and secret deals and the fate of the meadow is far from settled. One independent councillor, Andy Gardiner,  has pursued the matter from the beginning and, on his site, Wymondham Asks Why, explains what the latest problem is. He has long been a thorn in the council's side. You can link to the back story through his website.

The latest problem is the manipulation of the agenda to prevent certain questions being asked by the public. But something has been happening in the background to the extent that the current mayor, Dianne Fernee, takes the microphone before the meeting proper and announces that she will stand no nosense and will not be interrupted.

She is not interrupted, but when, after apologies it comes to Item 2, Declarations of Interest, Andy Gardiner weighs in, partly because the council have been taking some action against him outside the meeting, and the mayor has just made this extraordinary statement which, he says, amounts to a declaration of interest that prevents him getting a fair hearing on the matter of the King's Head Meadow which is coming up as Item 5.

What is more it seems, according to his website, that the public are not going to be able to ask any questions about the minutes or the issue of the Kings Head Meadow itself. The agenda, as I have it before me, does not limit the questions only to following items so either there was a misunderstanding or the agenda has been modified.

Gardiner is insistent that his arguments cannot be dealt fairly by the mayor. He will not be quiet on this.  He does not want her in the chair and asks for her resignation. He quotes standing orders to show that she has acted unconstitutionally. The mayor is clearly exasperated and eventually stands up, tears off her chain of office and storms out.  The deputy chair attempts to continue but without hope. A few minutes later Gardiner leaves the meeting.

In another five minutes the deputy chair has given up and abandons the meeting. No meeting then.

The public - some fifty or so - are bemused. One elderly man keeps shouting at the deputy mayor. He thinks it is a disgrace. He thinks the council is a disgrace.

I help to put away the chairs and talk to some friends who were there last time. I am trying to understand what has just happened. The talk is still of corruption. I don't know whether the press was present but it should have been.

Who says Norfolk is a quiet backwater?  (Actually, I did once.)  It's much less of a backwater than it once was. And it's not so quiet either.

If anyone cares to write in and comment about what they thought was happening please feel free to do so, always minding the law.


Anonymous said...

As I couldn't be at the meeting, thank you for posting this account of it.

Gwil W said...

Too many sherries at lunchtime?

George S said...

Too many backhanders from supermarkets? I am only asking the question, you understand.

havantaclu said...

This doesn't surprise me at all, I'm afraid! When I was a teenager, my father was the Chairman of the local Urban District Council. He was the only person on the Council who wasn't a local tradesman.

The Council had appointed the business run by one of its members to build some new council housing (yes, way back when Councils still built housing!) Dad and I were walking one Sunday afternoon, close to the new buildings.

Both of us noticed that the wall of the only block of flats included was several degrees (probably 10) from the vertical. Closer inspection of several other houses showed the same defect.

On the Monday morning, Dad reported the problem to the local Surveyor, and asked him to look into the situation. (Why the Surveyor hadn't been checking as the buildings went up - well, I don't know, but ...)

Wednesday morning Dad had a visit from the local builder/Council member. He was furious that Dad had reported the defect - it meant that he'd have to pull down the walls and rebuild them. Now he wouldn't make more than a small profit on the contract.

'I've always supported you on the Council,' quoth the builder. 'But now I know who my friends are - and you aren't one of them!'

So - that many people stand for their local Councils for purely self-interested reasons doesn't surprise me in the least.

The above incident took place over 50 years ago. And I quote The Who - 'Meet the new boss - same as the old boss.'

George S said...

I have heard stories like that, Jeni - from my late father-in-law about his local town council. That sounds quite candalous.

In this case the local tradesmen are likely to suffer were a new supermarket to be built in the centre - but the whole affair is so secretive we really don't know what's going on and what advantage it confers on members of the council - or, unspecified, on the town, which was the claim last time round.

Dafydd John said...

First of all I should admit to being a community councillor myself - but it's certainly not something I'm ashamed of.

However, here is a story about bureaucracy gone mad in the sense that it becomes so intransigent.


By the way, I contacted the Poetry Society at the beginning of the week expressing my surprise that they had no mention of Nigel Jenkins' death in the news section on their website. I have not received an acknowledgment or reply, and there is still no mention there.

George S said...

Dafydd - I didn't even know Nigel Jenkins had died. I expect I would have known had I read an obituary in this or that paper. I see he died about ten days ago. It can take longer than that to researarch write and publish an obit as I know from experience as the writer of the occasional obit.

I am very surprised the NPS did not carry news of his death. I am a member of the NPS but apart from guest editing the Summer 2012 issue of Poetry Review I am not a part of the organisation. I'll drop Judith Palmer a note.

I did meet NJ once, I can't quite remember where. He was quite young then.

Dafydd John said...

Thanks George.

He had the most wonderful - I wish it was mine - voice!


George S said...

I have rung the NPS and they say they'll do it, Dafydd.

Dafydd John said...

Thanks again, George