South Hams Council has been accused of attempting to gag elected councillors with its proposed new rules designed to protect members during the Covid-19 crisis, in a move hailed an "outrageous abuse of power," and a "shutdown of democracy."
They claim the proposed new rules would "extinguish the rights" of councillors to be involved in the democratic process and "eliminate scrutiny of all executive decisions".
The authority is due to propose adopting the new rules for remote meetings until May 7, 2021 when it meets this afternoon (Thursday April 23) via Skype at 2pm.
The proposals, contained in a report drawn up by the senior legal specialist and deputy monitoring officer, David Fairbairn, include giving the Head of Paid Services (ie the chief executive) (or their deputy) and the council leader, Cllr Judy Pearce, the power to decide if meetings should take place, including overview and scrutiny meetings.
It is also proposed that any meetings that are held shall not include any items for questions or motions from elected councillors.
The district council has been without a chief executive since March, when former head Sophie Hosking left to take up a new post at Cornwall Council. Steve Mullineaux is the deputy chief executive at South Hams.
Cllr Birch says the proposals are at the "extreme end of the options available to the council" and is seeking to overturn the recommendations.
So too is Cllr Hodgson who is "outraged" at the district council’s "attempt to silence ward members and prevent accountability during the Covid-19 crisis."
She added: "I am extremely concerned about this shut down of democracy and the prevention of our inputs to district council meetings and decisions during this crisis.
"It is an imposition on and the undermining of our elected representative duties.
"These proposed new rules are seeking an agreement for us to not be able to ask questions, scrutinise decisions or put forward proposals.
"Since this is generally the only way we can truly represent our communities, we will be effectively disempowering all district councillors and giving an open door to a dictatorship.
"Without any prior consultation or discussion with ward members on this proposal, we district councillors are being press-ganged into a position that will prevent us from properly being able to represent our residents, businesses and communities at this critical time."
Cllr Hodgson hailed the move an "outrageous abuse of power" and said this critical time of a coronavirus pandemic is precisely when the council should be working as a team to pool resources and propose and discuss ideas.
Cllr Hodgson, who also sits on Devon County Council and is the mayor of Totnes Town Council, insisted: "Other Local authorities, including Devon County Council are not attempting to shut down scrutiny or avoid holding regular meetings.
"Parliament will reopen this week, and much has been made in the news of the return to scrutiny and PM question time.
"The virtual meetings that I have experienced at Devon County Council, as well as town and parish meetings in the last couple of weeks have worked very well, and while some arrangements have been made to enable clerks and officers to take some delegated urgent decisions as part of an emergency response, there has not been any proposal to refuse questions and motions at full council meetings.
She added: "Totnes Town Councillors who I have asked for a view on this are equally are horrified by these proposals as are many other district councillors.
"This needs a clear rethink and I hope that councillors from all parties at Thursday’s meeting will recognise the dangerous implications and precedent of this proposal and vote it down in the interest of democracy and their residents.
"This is an important time for scrutiny and good decision making and for us all at SHDC to work as a team.
"I don’t think the residents who have elected us would thank us for handing over our (their) power."
Cllr Judy Pearce, Leader of South Hams District Council: "Firstly I would like to applaud councils across Devon, for embracing new technology and making council meetings happen remotely. This is new territory for all of us and we are delighted that the Government has brought in new regulations to enable this to happen, so that essential strategic decisions can still be made.
"Thankfully, the Government has also recognised that we have a huge responsibility to help our communities at the moment, to support our businesses and to shield those at risk from the corona-virus. To enable us to focus all of our attention on this emergency work, we are following the new regulations that the Government has appended to the legislation. The Government recognised that we are having to do different work and because of this change in focus we do not have the capacity to follow the normal schedule of meetings. For example, many of those officers who would normally have resourced the council meetings are now working on the emergency response. Therefore, they have said that we can change how we hold council meetings, to make local democracy as efficient and effective as it can be at this difficult time.
"Secondly, I think that it is entirely sensible that we should only hold council meetings where strategic decisions have to be made, such as for the appointment of the new Head of Paid Service. With many of our core functions suspended, we will not be making important strategic decisions and we do not need to hold our usual cycle of council meetings. Tactical decisions which have to be made to enable officers to respond to the coronavirus crisis can be done under delegated emergency powers.
"Once the crisis is passed and we can switch our attention back to our normal day to day functions, normal council meetings can and will resume as soon as it is safe to do so.
"Thanks to our ways of working, we are in a good position to be able to hold essential council meet-ings over Skype and to stream them to social media. I would like to thank officers and fellow council-lors for embracing this change and making it happen so quickly. All district councillors can take an active part in these meetings and the general public can watch live from home, the way these meetings are held may well evolve over time as we get used to the new technology. Today I am asking council-lors to vote for these in-house rules so that any meetings that are required to be held within the next 13 months take place efficiently. This will give us the time and resources to focus on helping our com-munity to respond to the crisis, but I very much hope the normal schedule of meetings can resume be-fore then."