by David Wimble
Most town or parish council meetings are normally quite staid and low-key affairs, and Looker reporters do not always have them high on their list for a good night out. However, New Romney Town Council’s meeting on June 12th resulted in farce with police having to be called when a councillor refused to move from the Council table within the Chamber.
Before this though, there was an error in the meeting when the Town Clerk, Mrs Catherine Newcombe, gave apologies for absence from David Evans who had resigned earlier that day – an announcement that was omitted from the public part of the meeting.
With the formal part of the meeting ready to start, the Mayor invited Reverend Julie Colman to offer a prayer and begin a minute’s silence to reflect on recent terrorist attacks. Then before any business could be dealt with, the Mayor commented that local artist Briony Kapoor, who had tried to take her seat at the table, was told that she was not allowed to do so and invited to take a seat in the public area.
Mrs Kapoor then tried to inform the Mayor, Clerk and members of the council, that she had not, at that time, formally resigned – although she was happy to do so by passing over her written letter at that point.
Instead of simply accepting the letter in the good faith in which it was offered, the Mayor suspended the meeting and told Mrs Kapoor that if she did not immediately remove herself from the Council table and retire to the public seating area, the police would be called, adding that they had already been instructed to be on standby!
Mrs Kapoor responded by stating that after taking guidance from the Kent Association of Local Councils, her resignation was not formal until it was put into writing – which she was there to do. She offered to pass the letter to the Clerk, but this was declined.
At this point, Revd. Coleman stood and offered to have a word with Mrs Kapoor to see if she could help bring the matter to an amicable end. She offered to take the letter of resignation and pass it to the Clerk, but again this was rejected.
The Mayor reiterated that the meeting was suspended until the police arrived to remove Mrs Kapoor from the Chamber. After nearly 20 minutes, Mrs Kapoor and her partner decided that that they had wasted enough time trying to do things by the book and stormed out of the meeting after a heated exchange between two Council officials and Mrs Kapoor’s companion.
The meeting then continued with two new councillors being co-opted. The first was Paul Thomas who said that he hoped to bring his life skills to help with the Council, while the other was Shepway District Councillor Susie Govett, with one person asking if they should call her ‘Councillor Councillor’ now, as she had a seat on two bodies! Ms. Govett pointed out that she would have to up her game as Russell Tilson sat on New Romney Town Council, was Deputy Chairman of Dymchurch Parish Council and also sat on St Mary’s Bay & St Mary-in-the-Marsh Parish Council.
Mrs Kapoor is the sixth councillor to resign in the past few months amid allegations of bullying within the Council, and that the Council is not following guidelines clearly laid out in the statutory books.
When The Looker contacted former councillor David Evans he said: “My own reason for going is that it has become a council within a council. It’s like a club where you have to be invited to join the inner circle which was started by the former Mayor Pat Rolfe. Look at how many have resigned over the last two years – it can’t be coincidence. I have thought about a vote of no-confidence, but as I am not an elector in the Town I cannot sign it or vote. I think it might be a wake-up call for them but the only problem will be if an election does go ahead and not enough people stand, like the last time when all will be returned un opposed.”
In an e-mail sent to all members of the Council Mrs Kapoor said:
“Dear Fellow Councillors,
We were all unfortunately misinformed by the Town Clerk about my resignation. The fact is that not having put in a signed resignation letter I am still a councillor. KALC officer Clive Powell confirmed this to me in writing as follows on 19th May: ‘The resignation is to the Chairman in writing and unless you have standing orders to the contrary then it should be by signed letter. It takes immediate effect and there is no issue of acceptance or withdrawal. There is no notice period or withdrawal. Once it is opened the Clerk must act on it. The easiest process for all concerned is that if you want to forewarn the Chairman and Clerk of your intention this can be helpful particularly if you intend to make a final statement at Council (goodbyes/thank you etc.) then at the end of the meeting hand the resignation letter to the Clerk although as I say it is addressed to the Chairman. The Clerk will open it and at that point you will have resigned and the Clerk can then contact the District ERO the next morning. I recommend that from the Council’s point of view they then write to you formally to thank you for your service.’
I advised the new Mayor and the Town Clerk of this ruling but have had no response. I will be coming to Council on Monday to set matters right. I expect also to collect the papers and minutes relating to the meetings from which I was unjustifiably excluded and, despite believing this wrong, voluntarily stayed away.
Willing as I have expressed myself to accept that there might have been mistakes I am not actually convinced of that. When I first decided to resign, it was to have more time for my work with the Charity but now I am also resigning to protest the closed, behind scenes manoeuvring that we have all witnessed in recent weeks.
I will be bringing my signed resignation letter to the meeting. A more open and honourable sort of behaviour at the Town Hall would be desirable. The Town Clerk needs to consider whether her impartiality has been compromised. Proper conduct should be respected and restored as I hope it will be under the new Mayor.
In our town there are a number of organisations run in an open and friendly way from which the Council could learn. They include the R M Art Society, the Marsh Ink Writers, the Community Church in North Street, St Nicholas Church, the Country Fayre, the Old School Trust, the Country Mice sewing group and others about which I do not know enough to comment.
Between them and with my own IMOS Foundation, the Romney Marsh Visitors Centre, Romney Tweed and the Countryside Project, these represent the heart and spirit of the town in a way that the Council consistently fails to do. I believe this issue should be addressed.”
We contacted the Clerk for a statement and she said: “Whilst KALC may have its own Code of Conduct, the Town Council is, itself, bound by the adopted Code of Conduct which is publicly published on the Town Council website and held also by Shepway District Council, within which there is NO reference to any requirements for the nature of any communications which may be validly received.
Having taken advice via the KALC (Kent Association of Local Councils) Legal Advice Service regarding the potential for public disorder at last evening’s meeting the advice received was that, if there is the slightest suspicion that there may be potential for public disorder whilst carrying out the business of the Council, in accordance with the SDA s17 (Crime and Disorder Act section17) the Council ‘MUST inform the police asap and request their attendance for the relevant section of the meeting (duty to do so re a17 CDA)’. Hence, the police service was informed during the course of the afternoon and called at the appropriate time in accordance with the Council’s legal duty to do so.”
What do you think? The Looker would like to know if you are in favour of councils just hand-picking friends to join them. Or should all councillors have to stand for election and be voted in, standing on a personal pledge or manifesto?
Let The Looker know what you think. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.