THE town clerk of Lyme Regis faced criticism at a meeting this week, after some councillors were told they were “not allowed” to attend an event he hosted for prospective election candidates.
Town clerk John Wright said he “wished he hadn’t bothered” hosting what was supposed to be a positive event for potential new councillors, after it resulted in a row with existing members during which he was accused of lying.
Mr Wright hosted two open events last Monday to provide information to potential new councillors ahead of the election in May – one in the afternoon and one in the evening, attended by a total of just three people.
The event was then discussed at Wednesday night’s Strategy & Finance Committee meeting, when Councillor Jeff Scowen asked why the existing councillors were not invited to attend.
Councillor Scowen said he “turned up without being invited” and the Mayor, Councillor Michaela Ellis, had also attended.
“It does seem a bit strange that there was only myself and one other councillor there. When we get these people – although they didn’t turn up, just as well because it would have been embarrassing – we should have councillors there to fly the flag,” he commented.
“In future please, out of courtesy and efficiency, all members should have been invited. I’ve discussed it with members and some weren’t invited and said they were discouraged from attending.
“I don’t think it was the correct way to handle a very important thing that was very poorly attended by the public.”
Councillor Cheryl Reynolds said she was “very concerned” because she was specifically told she was not allowed to attend the event.
“I was told the mayor could go but I definitely could not,” she added.
Mr Wright said that the event was intended for potential new councillors and not existing members. He said it was publicised and members had even received a report at the last Strategy & Finance meeting on the upcoming elections, which mentioned the event.
Councillor Stan Williams – who has been on holiday for six weeks so had missed the last meeting – said he had been through all his records and had not received the report.
He commented: “None of this is true. I have been away, when I came back I went through all my information – nothing.
“On Monday morning I went into the office and specifically asked ‘can I attend?’. The staff on the front desk disappeared and came back with the answer ‘no, you are not allowed to go’. It was very plain.”
Councillors warned to be ‘very careful’
The town clerk replied: “If members want to suggest other members are not telling the truth that’s for you guys to sort out. If you are accusing me as the town clerk, who has actually done things as a matter of public record, I would suggest members need to be very, very careful.”
Councillor Williams: “I’m not suggesting anything, I’m telling you precisely what happened… Why was I told no councillors were allowed to go?”
Mr Wright said the event was not designed or aimed at current members, and he wanted it to be as neutral as possible with no attempt to influence members of the public. He added that some members chose to turn up and he did not want to turn people away.
Councillor Scowen said he found the information provided at the event very helpful and he thought other members would have also benefited.
He said he disagreed that having existing councillors attending the event would “put people off”, and they should have been there to support and encourage the public to stand.
Councillor Reynolds commented: “I understand the idea of keeping the public separate from the councillors but there’s one thing I do not accept – I was told specifically I could not go by the town clerk and then Councillor Scowen goes. I’m sorry, that’s not fair.”
Mr Wright said it would have been “completely inappropriate” to ask Councillor Scowen to leave the event.
He added: “I’ve tried doing something really positive here. Do you know what? It feels dead negative now, I wish I hadn’t bothered.”
Defending the town clerk, the mayor commented: “He’s trying to pull people from the town to sit on this council. It would be great to have an election this year and not be a self-selecting council. We need as many people as possible and some new blood on the council.”
Accusations ‘have got to stop’
Following the discussion on the election event, Councillor Williams raised the ongoing negotiations regarding assets on Monmouth Beach, saying he had written to the town clerk to ask for further information and “of course he didn’t response, as he never does”.
Addressing Councillor Ellis, who was chairing the meeting, Mr Wright said: “This has got to stop.”
Councillor Ellis told Councillor Williams he could not continue to “accuse officers”.
Mr Wright said he had spent hours talking members through maps, designs, leases and other information on the Monmouth Beach area and the council had held many meetings on the matter.
“I’ve done it loads of times. Does anybody not recognise what I’m saying?” he asked.