AXMINSTER mayor Cllr Jeremy Walden has come under fire after he moved the public forum to the end of the town council agenda.
Councillor Walden’s move came as part of an apparent attempt to streamline meetings, which have recently lasted in excess of three hours, but did not go down well with those in the public gallery.
Public forum is the part of the council meeting during which residents can voice any concerns and interact with councillors.
It has traditionally taken place early in the meeting, allowing the public to get stuck in without delay.
But public forum had been pushed back to item 21 for the September meeting of the council.
As it turned out, this was about two hours into the meeting.
Axminster resident Kathy Hackman, a regular in the public gallery, was angered by the change.
She was the most vociferous member of the public present and demanded to know what had caused the change.
Mayor Walden said he was willing to be flexible and hold public forum earlier if the agenda allowed.
Deputy mayor Anni Young said one reason for the move was that residents would be able to comment on all matters councillors had discussed earlier in the evening.
With public forum early on in the agenda, residents can’t comment on anything once public forum has closed.
Councillor Walden also said that it is important that councillors’ minds are fresh when they discuss important matters.
Councillor Andrew Moulding said: “I think we should vote on it,” and councillors subsequently voted 7-2 in favour of holding public forum later.
Councillor Walden then invited those in the public gallery to vote, with the opposite result.
About 15 members of the public were present and a large majority favoured to have public forum early on.None of the votes are binding, and Councillor Walden has since reiterated that he will try to be flexible.
He told Pulman’s Weekly News: “It is at the discretion of the mayor. It will depend on how the agenda looks. It is important that important items are discussed early when everybody is relatively fresh.”
Ms Hackman was not satisfied with the response, and has since written a letter to Pulman’s Weekly News, saying: “Mayor Jeremy Walden had changed this with no prior warning to the public.
“Moreover, in the meeting he took a vote from the councillors to make this permanent.
“A (meaningless) vote he then offered to those members of the public present, went strongly against the later time.”
The length of meetings has been an issue for some time, and was highlighted last month when veteran councillor Mervyn Symes resigned after more than 20 years.
He gave a number of reasons, but did say: “With town council meetings now lasting in excess of three hours, I have not found it easy to maintain a consistent attendance.”
The August meeting of the council was abandoned just after the three-hour mark when councillor Sue Spiller pointed out that standing orders state that no meeting should exceed three hours.
The previous month, July, it took 50 minutes to clear the opening four agenda items (17 items in total).
Public forum itself can also go on for some time.
Nobody has gone on record saying so, but it is understood that some councillors were annoyed that many issues/complaints raised during public forum were outside the council’s remit, and that many points raised were repeated time and time again.