Some council advisory groups were so secret that even some councillors were unaware of their existence.
Faced with mounting pressure over the transparency of its decision making in the past few weeks, the Tory-led Horsham District Council has committed to publishing a list of its advisory groups and notes taken from these meetings on its website.
But one of its youngest councillors, Conservative Connor Relleen, who was first elected to the Horsham Park ward in May, criticised the way the cabinet system limited access to information and input into decision making for back-benchers.
He said: “As a new councillor, I am concerned about the lack of transparency in decision-making.
“It is not always clear how decisions are arrived at, or how informed they are. Advisory groups play a key role in ensuring that the knowledge and experience of all councillors is used in the formulation of policy.
“Residents will find it peculiar that some advisory groups are not open to all councillors, and that agendas and notes are not always published.
“I’m sure that the whole council, including the cabinet, will want to support constitutional changes that will make advisory groups as open and transparent as possible.”
The issue emerged during internal council debate of advisory groups, when some councillors said they were unaware of the existence of bodies such as the Development Management Advisory Group, Property Investment Advisory Group, and a steering group chaired by leader Ray Dawe, which is looking at future governance arrangements at HDC.
Asked if it was acceptable that several councillors were until recently unaware that some of these advisory groups existed, a HDC spokesman said: “A list of all AGs will be published shortly and this will be updated regularly.”
The council was also asked if minutes of advisory group meets were made publicly available and how councillors were kept informed of advisory group business.
The spokesman replied: “Cabinet members invite members of their AGs to meetings. The detail of meeting notes are entirely at the discretion of the cabinet member. All such notes will in future be published on the council’s website.”
David Skipp, leader of the Lib Dem Group at HDC, called for minutes and notes of meetings to be kept and published.
He said: “We want to see a transparent a system as possible and that should involve input into the advisory groups from all those members that have an interest in that particular group.”
Meanwhile both Claire Vickers, HDC’s cabinet member for planning and development, and chief executive Tom Crowley refused to comment on an email sent by Mrs Vickers in error to vice-chairman Christian Mitchell, which read: “Tom. He [Mr Mitchell] never gives up does he?
“I wonder if he will respond to Paul’s email now that he knows he can’t come to any advisory groups without specific invite from a cabinet member.
“I think he may have wished he hadn’t opened that particular pandora’s box? Best Regards, Claire.”
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