LYME Regis councillors have called for a more democratic way forward as the authority continues to operate under COVID-19 restrictions.
Normal council meetings were suspended in March when lockdown measures were first put in place. Town clerk John Wright was given extended delegated authority to spend up to £150,000 and make decisions in consultation with the mayor.
The council has held some meetings virtually via video conferencing app Zoom during the lockdown, but these have been considered “working groups” and have therefore not been open to the press of public.
The first public virtual meeting of the full council was held on Wednesday evening, when several members said they did not feel involved and called for a more democratic approach moving forward.
Councillor Richard Doney said he had some concerns about the way “we have been forced to operate” in recent weeks, and said he was keen to see the normal democratic process resumed as soon as possible.
“It will be difficult as we are not able to meet in person but other companies and organisations are managing,” he said.
Councillor Doney added that the “elephant in the room” was his long-standing concern about the council’s committee structure, which he has said is inefficient and creates more work for officers.
He suggested that now was a good time to review how the council would operate in the future.
Councillor Doney also called for a formal election of the mayor and deputy mayor for the remainder of the council year (up until May 2021). This would usually have been held in May but it was agreed that the current incumbents would remain in post until normal meetings could resume.
Councillor Michaela Ellis supported this proposal, adding that she would like to see regular full council and committee meetings open to the public, so members could discuss important issues and residents could see that they were still working.
Councillor Stan Williams also spoke in favour of more regular meetings, adding: “I think a lot of councillors feel they are not involved; we are not really a part of it anymore and that really disappoints me.”
Councillor Belinda Bawden said that virtual council meetings were legalised in early April and questioned why it had taken until late June for the council to host one.
“We would like to get back to having a proper say and representing the people of the town, as we were elected to do,” she added.
Mayor and deputy to stay in place
Members then voted on whether a mayor and deputy mayor should be formally elected. The vote was split 7-7 with the current mayor, Councillor Brian Larcombe MBE, given the casting vote.
He rejected the proposal, meaning he and deputy Stan Williams would remain in post.
If an election did go ahead, it is likely that Councillor Larcombe would be offered the chance to serve a second year as mayor, as is the tradition of the council.
However, Councillor Larcombe said that the possibility of new leadership would cause “too much disruption” at this time.
It was agreed to hold monthly, public full council meetings via video conferencing app Zoom until normal meetings could resume, and a working group meeting would be held next week to have a full discussion about future governance and the committee structure.
Members also agreed to continue with the current arrangements for the ton clerk’s delegated powers, but decisions will now be made in consultation with all committee chairmen and vice-chairmen, as well as the mayor.
Councillor Larcombe said he hoped it would not be too long until the council could meet face-to-face again, and they could then do so at the Woodmead Halls rather than the Guildhall, as it offered more space for social distancing.