Controversial move agreed by Berwick town councillors
The legality of steps taken by Berwick Town Council to move forward in the face of internal divisions has been questioned.
Coun Georgina Hill raised her concerns at Tuesday night’s meeting when members agreed to delegate all full council powers, except those to agree a budget and set a precept, to its committees.
It is a step town clerk Gareth Davies admitted he had been reluctant to take but he felt it was the best way out of the period of limbo the council has been in over recent weeks.
Last month, the majority of councillors walked out of the full council meeting in protest at it being chaired by Mayor Brian Douglas after they delivered a vote of no confidence in his handling of meetings.
Mr Davies believed that situation was set to continue, rendering full council meetings inquorate and unable to proceed with business.
Coun Douglas was not in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting, enabling the council to agree the delegated powers decision on an 8-3 vote.
Coun Hill, member for Berwick East on Northumberland County Council, felt the council was ‘on shaky ground’.
She said: “A very strong case could be made that what you are doing is unlawful and and could expose the council to risk of legal challenges by circumnavigating full council.”
She felt it could be interpreted that rules had been manipulated to exclude an elected councillor.
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Mr Davies responded: “I fully appreciate the point Coun Hill is making and that by Berwick standards these are untested and unchartered waters. My legal opinion is that there is nothing that exposes the council to challenge in this.”
He made it clear that the clerk would only have powers to decide what should go on the agenda of which committee, not delegating decision-making powers.
“This is an expedient way of dealing with a situation which is both difficult and uncomfortable for council, for officers and for elected members,” he added. “After consulting elected members this is the option we have come up with. We also discussed it with the Northumberland Association of Local Councils and the national association.”
Attempts to hold meetings of full council will continue throughout the three month period.
Coun Karin Graham, supporting the decision said: “It means councillors can get on with doing the business of the town. That would not have been the case because full council meetings would have been inquorate.
Coun Brian Parkin added: “Unfortunately I don’t think we have any other option than to go down this route.”
However, Coun Hazel Bettison said: “We were elected as a body to make decisions. When you take decisions in small committees, you are delegating powers to people on thise committees to make assumptions on something we might not agree with. That is why we have full council.”
Coun Robert Bruce added: “I don’t agree with this at all. The full council is here to deal with council business, not have it delegated to committees.”