Councillors’ attendance at public meetings in spotlight

Horsham District Councillors who were elected in the 2011 local elections had some of the best and worst attendance at the authority’s public meetings last year.

Friday, 8th February 2013, 10:00 am

There are many aspects of a councillor’s work, one of which is going to public committee and working group meetings of which they are members as well as full council meetings.

Frances Haigh (LDem, Horsham Park), who was elected in May 2011 attended 34 of 35 (97 per cent) meetings she was summoned to attend in 2012.

Ms Haigh, a member of four committees, said: “I love what I’m doing. I feel it was the right role for me and I’m prepared to put in the hours for my residents so they are represented properly.

“It’s a hugely varied job. There’s so much to read, to absorb and to deal with. There are a lot of difficult issues we tackle, whether it’s housing, the budget, or litter. Some weeks I might be in meetings for eight to ten hours plus all the time reading agendas and answering residents queries.”

Cabinet members, including Sue Rogers (Con, Steyning) and Helena Croft (Con, Roffey North) who were elected in 2011, and leaders of both party groups were among those with more than 80 per cent attendance.

At the bottom with 38 per cent attendance in 2012 was Josh Murphy (Con, Horsham Park), who balances council business with his university degree at Kings College, London.

A member of two committees, he was summoned to 29 meetings in 2012 and managed to get to 11. From January to May 2012 he attended just two of ten public meetings.

He said: “I’ve always been open about my commitments as a university student as well as a councillor. Meetings are only a tiny fraction of the work a councillor does. Attendance is a poor meter of my time spent as a councillor.”

He said there were other ways in which he could make a big impact, such as his work on a task group looking at Horsham town centre where he thought it was important that a young person’s views was heard.

“I have volunteered for this one. There’s no reason I had to do this but I volunteered.”

He added: “I think it’s a councillor’s duty to justify their absence, but I do not think absence is a big an issue as people might expect.”

Leader of the council Ray Dawe (Con, Chantry) agreed. He said: “I can see that it makes easy reading to look at councillor attendance at a particular set of meetings. I would greatly caution any reader to rush to any judgement based only on this information since there is of course lots more to being a councillor than simply recording attendance at a meeting in Horsham - a venue a lot easier to access for some councillors than for those living a distance away.

“A good ward councillor will probably spend a good 60 per cent their activity dealing with individual ward queries, attending parish or other meetings in their local area - some which clash with the meetings in the list that you have compiled - and dealing with the public and council staff on things like planning matters.

“I also rather suspect that a survey of time spent answering emails and taking phone calls would show a lot more hours spent each week on doing that than on the more formal aspects of council activity that these figures show.”

Leader of the Liberal Democrat group David Holmes said: “There are a lot of meeting that Ray Dawe and I attend that are not counted. To be fair the Conservatives have got a couple of young councillors which were paper candidates, but they were elected.

“One thing I would say, given that the Conservatives have such a high majority, a lot of things that used to be discussed in public are now being discussed in Conservative Group meetings, which does take up a lot of time. But this is not good for democracy because there’s no transparency. It really is a major problem.”

An HDC spokesman said: “If a Horsham District Councillor fails to attend at least one meeting of the authority within six months of the date of their last attendance, without the prior approval of the authority, they cease to be a member of the authority.

“This is the only requirement relating to meeting attendance.”