COMMENT: Dark day for democracy after meeting exclusion

Arun Civic Centre, Littlehampton ENGSUS00120130418113852
Arun Civic Centre, Littlehampton ENGSUS00120130418113852

THURSDAY was a dark day for democracy in Arun. The public, including the deputy political editor for this newspaper, were denied the opportunity to hear a full debate on Arun District Council chief executive Nigel Lynn’s annual salary review.

Onlookers at the meeting were excluded on the basis that the information to be discussed related to an individual.

Behind the scenes, we had worked hard to overturn the decision, pointing to clear guidance on such matters detailed by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Even Arun’s own documents suggested such matters should be dealt with in an ‘open and accountable way’.

Arun argued more details would be released at full council next year.

But for the process to be truly accountable, the public which the council serves needed to hear discussions from start to finish.

A final salary and a short minute of private discussions means little without access to full reports and views from both sides.

One of the most galling things was being denied the right to make formal representations at the meeting. The council’s constitution did not include public question time.

Instead, it was left to experienced Liberal Democrat councillor Dr James Walsh to effectively read extracts from our submissions.

We applaud Dr Walsh for voting against the proposal to exclude press and public.

Cabinet member Terry Chapman and Conservative backbencher Mike Clayden voted for the exclusion, while chairman Paul Wotherspoon did not vote at all.

The situation is even more disappointing when it is compared to neighbouring authorities’ handling of chief executive salaries.

Just three months ago, Adur and Worthing councils reviewed Alex Bailey’s salary.

Councillors were never invited to exclude the public, while the matter was openly debated in no less than four committees.

Reports were also in the public domain from day one.

The issue there also related to ‘an individual’ but councillors and officers did not choose to hide behind the Local Government Act.

Former leader Paul Yallop and his successor Dan Humphreys have often spoken of the importance of transparency.

Perhaps they could talk to their Conservative colleagues across the border about how they deal with these matters.

Compromises could have been made – at least the majority of the reports could have been released, for example.

Yet Arun District Council decided to close the door.

See the full story from last night’s meeting here.

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