I went to the Standards Committee meeting on Oct 4 where I and other residents witnessed a number of vote counting errors. It's generally understood that the public remain silent, however I felt compelled to point out that the vote counting was incorrect. Despite being correct I was seriously rebuked and told there would be no vote recount. Below is the correspondence which resulted, preceded by the complaint I have submitted against Cllr Ann Holmes, Chair of the Standards Committee.
MONDAY 4 NOVEMBER
COMPLAINT TO STANDARDS COMMITTEE
I was one of a number of City residents who attended the meeting of the Standards Committee on 4 October to hear it discuss its dispensations policy, which affects our elected members' ability to represent us properly. The vote counting on the first indicative show of hands was confused: on the third attempt the result was announced 6-5 although it was apparent to myself and other residents that it should have been 5-5.
I raised my hand and queried the count by saying that we hadn’t “seen those numbers”. Councillor Holmes, who was chairing the meeting, aggressively retorted “nor do you need to”, and went on to say that she was not willing to “risk" members of the committee being “pilloried” for their views.
Later, after the public were excluded, a member of the committee also queried the count, and it was agreed that the result of the first vote was indeed 5-5. The residents only found out about that because a member of the Corporation who does not sit on the committee attended the non-public session and afterwards shared the information with us. The draft minutes published on the Corporation’s website do not record any of this, and show the vote as having been 7-5 by including the two co-opted members present, although the point had been raised in the meeting - and not opposed - that the co-opted members should not have voted.
I wrote to Councillor Holmes on 11 October to give her the opportunity to apologise for the unwarranted assumption she made that I wanted to “pillory” members.
Her reply on 15 October not only misrepresented what I had said at the meeting (I clearly referred to numbers and not individuals when I queried the vote), she also went on to make further inaccurate statements as a basis to query the action / non-action of Councillor Sue Pearson, and cast us both in a demeaning light.
The email correspondence is attached and I quote from it:
“Given your were sitting next to, and chatting with Sue Pearson, I’m somewhat surprised that she didn’t just have a quick word with one of her ward colleagues, who is on the committee….”.
I wrote back on 21 October, explaining that:
- I was not, in fact, sitting next to Councillor Pearson at the time of the confused vote
- the word “chatting” suggests that she and I were not taking the proceedings seriously
- I found it extraordinary that Councillor Holmes should, without foundation, attack Councillor Pearson in this manner
I asked Councillor Holmes to withdraw the remark and apologise to Councillor Pearson.
Just over an hour later, Councillor Holmes replied, addressing me as “Ms Sansom” (it shouldn’t have been too much trouble to check that my name is Swanson), and declaring that “I have not attacked Sue Pearson”. That is obviously untrue as evidenced in the email chain.
She then unilaterally terminated the correspondence by saying that “You and I clearly have different perceptions and views, and I see no point to continuing this correspondence”.
Surely I cannot be dismissed for having a “different perception or view’ when my concerns are based on matters of fact, and there were several witnesses to attest to my account of these facts. I had asked in my email of 21 October who among those present did she think was going to “pillory” members, having said that it wasn’t me? If no one, why did she say something so pejorative? Why in any case did she not want to “risk” members of the committee being identified? Isn’t it a principle of public life that every elected member should act with openness and accountability? This has not been addressed.
After some consideration and despite feeling quite intimidated I feel I must submit a formal complaint. I also feel disquiet about how the minutes reframe the count.
My original email inviting Councillor Homes to apologise to myself and residents was an opportunity to show us some respect and empathy by taking a moment to consider how the process must have appeared to residents. Reasonable people, and I consider myself to be one, understand errors can be made - it is the acknowledgment and the way they are put right that counts. Rather than building bridges the responses of Councillor Holmes have effectively further jeopardised what little trust remains in the Standards Committee.
In conclusion, I believe that Councillor Holmes has not dealt with representations from residents, both at the meeting and in my correspondence with her, fairly, appropriately and impartially (paragraph 2(b) of the Code of Conduct); not been accountable for her decisions or co-operated when scrutinised externally (paragraph 2(f)); not treated me and the other residents present at the meeting with respect, and attempted to intimidate by me by her manner (paragraph 2(l); and brought her office as the Chair of Standards Committee, and the corporation, into disrepute (paragraph 2(m).
FRIDAY 11 OCTOER
email to Cllr Ann Holmes
Dear Ms Holmes
I am writing to offer you the opportunity to apologise for the unwarranted assumption you made about my concern regarding the vote counting at last Friday’s Standards Committee meeting (Oct 4). To suggest that I wished to ‘pillory’ members for their vote was insulting. As you don’t know me and so can’t have any well-founded reason to believe that was my intent, I can only assume the accusation was levelled at me as a resident. In considering the importance of making an apology I would ask you to consider what the residents who attended took away from the meeting.
Clearly, the vote counting was bungled more than once and it is difficult to understand how it happened. It was also worrying to witness a co-opted member having to be reminded that they could not vote. Why would they think they could, have they voted in meetings before? Why was it clear to all residents at the meeting that the vote had not been properly counted and yet apparently not to the members until the residents left the room?
The low regard in which residents are held is becoming increasingly apparent. How do you expect us to have any confidence in the Standards Committee?
As for the rest of the meeting, I was struggling to understand why it is proving so challenging for the Committee to come to a resolution that every other Local Authority across the country has managed. But finally it percolated to the surface – real estate in the City is so valuable that ‘third parties’ will challenge or threaten to challenge the City on planning decisions that are not in their favour. And some of these third parties have deep pockets.
As residents we understand the fear of costs of legal action, that fear on a number of occasions has prevented us bringing action against the City itself. The irony is not lost on us. However, the City does not get to trade democracy for comfort. It calls into question its fitness to act as a Local Authority. It has the legal minds at its disposal to make the granting of general dispensations robust and the process should not be conflated with other issues concerning third parties.
Please restore at least some faith by offering the residents an apology for your remark at Friday’s meeting and acknowledge our right to be treated with respect as we pursue our need to be properly represented.
I look forward to your response
Golden Lane Estate resident
TUESDAY 15 OCTOBER
email response from Cllr Holmes
Dear Ms Swanson
Thank you for your email.
Of course I’m sorry if I misunderstood what you meant, but that wasn’t clear to me from what you said, which was that you hadn’t seen who had voted, not that you were querying the count. I most certainly didn’t, however, suggest you would pillory members. I said I was not willing to risk members being pilloried, which I fear can happen when they are named for indicating a particular view.
As I’m sure you’re aware, most committee meetings are held in public, but it isn’t usual for the public to take part, unless this has been arranged beforehand. Given you were sitting next to, and chatting with Sue Pearson, I’m somewhat surprised that she didn’t just have a quick word with one of her ward colleagues, who is on the committee, and was present at the meeting.
By way of reassurance, the action which concerned you was not a vote on a recommendation, it was an indicative show of hands. The draft minutes of the meeting make clear how many indications came from co-opted members.
There is no evidence for the assertion that other local authorities approach the matter in a radically different manner. In any event, the fact that the vast majority of local authorities operate a cabinet and not a committee system and have wards with much larger numbers of electors and fewer members mean the issues simply do not arise in the same way. Finally the policy behind the Localism Act is that local authorities should take decisions based on local circumstances – there is no ‘one size fits all’
I hope this clarifies
Yours sincerely Ann Holmes
MONDAY 21 OCTOBER
my email response pointing out serious inaccuracies
Dear Ms Holmes
Politeness would require that I thank you for your prompt response. However, whilst I note your cool and conditional apology, the factual inaccuracies and accusations in the main body of your email are troubling.
I will respond to the main inaccuracy first:
You say that “Given you were sitting next to, and chatting with Sue Pearson, I’m somewhat surprised that she didn’t just have a quick word with one of her ward colleagues, who is on the committee, and was present at the meeting”.
It isn’t true that I was sitting next to Sue Pearson when I asked about the confused vote. I moved to sit next to her only later in the meeting after the person originally sitting next to her had left.
Your email appears to have been carefully crafted, so I suspect that you chose the word ‘chatting’ intentionally. This suggests that both Cllr Pearson and I did not take the proceedings seriously. When I moved to sit next to Cllr Pearson there was some communication instigated by myself to check that I was correct about the vote count.
I find it extraordinary that you should, without foundation, attack Sue Pearson in this manner. Please withdraw the remark and apologise to her. I’ve copied her on this email for that purpose.
I will now address the rest of your letter from the top.
You say “what you said ... was that you hadn’t seen who had voted, not that you were querying the count.”
I made no reference to votes or who made them, I said that we hadn’t “seen those numbers”. I was querying the count.
This is what I saw: two confused counts, and then finally a clear 5 for and 5 against the proposal. You then conferred with the Clerk and it was announced the proposal was lost 6 / 5. I leant forward to look left along the row of residents only to see confused faces and I shot my hand up. This shows that I understand that “it isn’t usual for the public to take part”.
I was met with very strong rebuke, but I made it clear when I spoke that I wasn’t trying to take part in the debate, I was asking only about the confused vote. The meeting was told in no uncertain terms “There will be no recount”. I am informed that there was a recount after the public had been excluded, and the result was what the residents had seen, and not what we were told. Under the circumstances you should acknowledge the residents behaved with restraint.
You say that “I most certainly didn’t, however, suggest you would pillory members. I said I was not willing to risk members being pilloried, which I fear can happen when they are named for indicating a particular view.”
I was the only member of the public who spoke. If you didn’t think I was going to “pillory” members, who among those present did you think would? If no-one, why did you say something so pejorative?
Why, in any case, did you not want to “risk” members of the committee being identified? Isn’t it a principle of public life that every elected member should act with openness and accountability? I can’t think of any good reason why a member would be uncomfortable about how they vote on any matter being known by anyone.
You say that “the action which concerned you was not a vote on a recommendation, it was an indicative show of hands”.
But how is that relevant? The vote related to taking further action. If not, what was the point of having a vote at all?
You say “that the vast majority of local authorities operate a cabinet and not a committee system and have wards with much larger numbers of electors and fewer members mean the issues simply do not arise in the same way”.
This suggests to me that the committee system does not work.
Finally, you say that “the policy behind the Localism Act is that local authorities should take decisions based on local circumstances – there is no ‘one size fits all’.”
Democracy is not relative. How can locality justify the extent to which residents are represented in decisions made that affect them? Except that in the City, where most councillors represent mainly business voters (unlike in any other council), it is even more important that resident councillors can vote on behalf of their constituents in all situations except where the matter affects the councillor more than any of those constituents. The fact that half of the Standards Committee doesn’t seem to think so is a problem that will have to be solved soon.
MONDAY 21 OCTOBER
email response from Cllr Holmes
Dear Ms Sansom
Thank you for your email.
I have not attacked Sue Pearson.
You and I clearly have different perceptions and views, and I see no point to continuing this correspondence.
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