Ray Dawe: Council tax, the council chairman and democracy

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What is more important to you, knowing that Horsham District Council has agreed to freeze your council tax for next year or hearing how the next chairman of the council was chosen?

I suggest that virtually all readers will be far more interested to learn about a freeze in the council tax they pay, since this has far more relevance to their lives.

However, last week, only a short time after a vote to choose the next chairman was taken, the losing candidate and two other members who supported him appeared very prominently on several pages of the County Times website saying their candidate had been ‘deselected’.

They apparently believe their choice for chairman should have overridden the majority’s wish and a democratic vote.

There is generally no need for most readers to understand much about the role of chairman of the council. The chairman is chosen for just one year and then stands down. It is purely an honorary position.

He presides at council meetings (about six times a year) and represents the council at public events, for example, Remembrance Sunday.

The chairman has always been the person nominated by the largest group on the council.

This is currently the Conservative group whose own constitution states that upon agreement on the candidate everyone in the group will fully support him or her.

As a demonstration of the thought and fair mindedness that goes into this decision, only recently (in 2012) the Conservative group nominated a Liberal Democrat councillor.

If there is more than one candidate the group constitution states that there will be a vote. As group leader, it is my job to ensure we abide by this democratic process especially as in this case there was very strong support for more than one candidate.

In councils all political groups hold regular meetings. This was a perfectly normal one and all 33 Conservative group members were invited.

It had an agenda and was called well in advance. Two of the three members who are unhappy attended.

There is now bizarre talk that it was a ‘secret’ meeting but it only appears to have become so when their preferred candidate was not elected!

While it is unusual for there to be a contested election, each member was able to vote freely for the person of their choice and there was a clear winner.

Councillors’ reasons for preferring one candidate over another are personal to them. It is being strongly suggested that the losing candidate, who has been vice-chairman this year, lost the vote because he has been outspoken about the proposal to build houses north of Horsham.

This was not raised as an issue. On the contrary, the easiest way of stifling comment would have been to elect him to be the non-political chairman.

Doing the chairman’s job is demanding and we should all recognise the time given and the contribution made by those who do this on our behalf.

However, the fact is that while primarily a trio of councillors, and now it seems the new Liberal Democrat leader, are pre-occupying themselves and thus taking many column inches of this newspaper with this matter, other councillors are quietly getting on with dealing with the public’s everyday concerns and the provision of the public services we all use.

Most importantly for everyone, last week we agreed that for the fourth year in row there will be no increase in the council tax we all pay, but we are maintaining all council services.

This is surely far more important and relevant to most people’s lives!

See also Christian Mitchell’s column

See also our County Times comment