Councillor Alex Cox, who joined the town council earlier this year, supported the idea at the town council meeting on June 18, and said that councillor surgeries - where members of the public could drop in to discuss matters with their local representatives - could be held once a month, on a Saturday morning, for ‘transparency’ reasons and to give the public a chance to see councillors’ “friendly faces” in an informal environment.
Coun George Horton agreed, saying that the town council’s headquarters (The Sessions House in Eastgate) belongs to the town, and should be used more often if a key-holder is available.
However, Coun Andrew Leonard was sceptical and said: “Most complaints that come in from the public are intercepted by the Town Clerk who is here on a daily basis, paid and employed by us. Most of the interception is then put on an agenda (to be discussed by councillors at a future town council meeting).
“Alternatively, when we have a meeting, there is a public forum - and if people come to a public forum they get a balanced view - and not a squiffed view - of all political parties and all persuasions.”
Coun Jill Makinson-Sanders also raised concerns about political balance at the proposed surgeries, and added: “I can’t necessarily come down (on Saturdays).
“I like to deal with my queries either on the phone, or meet people in town, people stop me in the street, and so forth.
“I do think that we are transparent, and I think it’s very naughty for you to suggest that we’re not.”
Councillors who opposed the move - including Coun Pauline Watson - said that surgeries were unnecessary because all councillors’ contact details are available on the town council’s website if a resident needs to get in touch.
Coun Fran Treanor, said that security was a concern for him, particularly in light of the murder of Jo Cox MP three years ago. Coun Jason Garrett said that argument was not sufficient, as there was “nothing stopping anybody” with malicious intentions walking into the meeting right there and then.
Coun David Ford said that, while safety was an issue, The Sessions House is a “neutral space” - rather than a councillor having to attend a resident’s home, or vice versa.
Coun Horton proposed that The Sessions House should be used for councillor surgeries ‘in principle’, subject to further discussions at a later date in which the foundations of these surgeries would be agreed, and the Town Clerk would investigate how other local town councils carry out their councillor surgeries.
However, at the end of the debate, the proposal was rejected by councillors by a narrow margin of 9 votes to 8.