Last night, by chance, I discovered a full meeting of our local council was taking place and, thanks to one of my Facebook friends who pointed this out, was able to view some of the live debate on the Internet. While there were technical hitches, e.g. when the camera pointed to one unaware councilor for a long time, I did see what was going on, including people who I know that were performing.
While there was undoubted entertainment value in the proceedings, it was also a most informative experience and, in my view, a good thing for democracy, and a facility I would heartily recommend others to use, if not for the live debates, then afterward to view the recordings. I only managed to catch an hour or so of this three hour epic and hope to go back to the recording later at my leisure, and reflect on the content of this and maybe other meetings, which can be viewed from the Council webcast library, in future posts.
I have only ever attended one full council meeting, when a few years ago I was involved in presenting a petition objecting to the then administration’s casino plans, which sadly received short shrift at the time. My one abiding memory was seeing councilors, who I generally found quite affable, engaging in nasty recrimination. At that time, two ex-mayors had recently had a public row and some of the fallout from this spilled on into the council chamber. If nothing else, it taught me that councilors have all too human foibles, like any of us. There was a bit of that last night, and it struck me how pompous some councilors are and how much is said that isn’t helpful or relevant or are not particularly cognizant of the relevant facts or what is needed, sometimes more intent on point scoring.
But what really struck me this time was the amount of ground that was covered and the importance of the issues that were being considered. In the short time I watched, two of the aspects that I had a particular interest in were discussions around education inequalities in our schools and the future of Council Care homes. Later, I found that another pet subject, the proposed new sea wall, had also been discussed. I found the widely contrasting claims and counter-claims on how finances have been or should be handled interesting but also baffling. I have no doubt that all these issues were covered to some extent and lots of relevant points were made (and some irrelevant), and as a result I have a better idea of what is going on, which will help me next time I engage with a councilor.
As one that sometimes chairs meetings, I was interested in how this one would be chaired. I have some sympathy with the person landed with the job, usually the mayor elect of that year, who most people only see going from one event to another and being nice to people. Not only is he/she thrust into the deep end, especially if chairing is not their particular forte, but it is necessary to go swiftly and efficiently through a packed agenda, containing many important items that need dealing with, and dealing with a group of councilors not always playing according to the rules, sometimes intent at making snide jibes at their opponents, not keeping to the matter in hand, etc. Often points of order were raised and the chair’s sidekick (the Town Clerk) played an unexpected role ensuring the meeting is brought back on track by virtue of his intimate knowledge of the “rule book” and experience gained from previous meetings. I think the chair did well and I liked his calm, unpretentious manner, sense of fair play and humour, but he needs to work a bit on his act, no doubt helped by the Town Clerk, before awarding him full marks. Before moving on, I couldn’t help noticing the mayor’s choice of one of his chaplains: an old friend, Pritam Bahra. While appointing a Sikh shows a break with tradition, the fact there is a recognition of a diverse community and spiritual considerations was encouraging.
One of the things that did struck me is the amount of gobbledygook that is spoken from all sides of the chamber, and the quantity rather than quality of the words that were spoken. This is not just the opposition being negative, as sadly they sometimes were, but also when portfolio holders have to respond to what I deemed to be good questions from the floor. It felt at times they didn’t know their brief all that well and were too reliant on the measured briefing notes supplied to them by council officers. I recall around the time I attended my one and only full council meeting that one councilor, who I won’t name, make the observation that the only portfolio holder that could hold her own, without resorting to props or polispeak, was Verina Weaver. I wonder how much has changed! The highlight of the entertainment was when one councilor tried to elicit an admission that some of the things a particular portfolio holder was able to achieve was as a result of the generosity of the current government in providing the funding. A little later, Councillor Gilbert, who I decided to award the “champagne moment”, pointed out that while the government did indeed make this money available, they had taken away a lot more and therefore could not be congratulated. All this was irrelevant to the important issues being debated, as was a fair bit of what was actually said.
As I say, there is much to ponder, especially how to address a difficult financial situation we are now in, trying to provide services to people who need them that are cost effective, and to balance the books. I am not unsympathetic and it is the reason why one of my voluntary sector roles is to explore how we might help. Despite what one skeptical, “in the know”, friend said about councilors getting to their position with less than noble aspirations, not being particularly hardworking or engaging with members of their wards, I would like to think a fair few, hopefully most, are there because they wish to serve and make Southend a better place. Their job is an unenviable one; their powers are limited; they are often beholden to central government and reliant on council officers; and the electorate is notoriously fickle. But they can make a difference, not least serving the people of the town and especially those in their wards.
I would advise councillors: to speak little and listen much, study your brief, scrutinize what goes on, build a thick skin, work hard and work smart, get to know your ward and the people in it, consider those you represent and aim to return that trust, don’t get defensive and keep a proper perspective, a sense of humour and humble. Remember the true, necessary and kind (TNK) advice and there are a lot of good people in the town who you can call upon and work with in order to make a difference. Also, I can’t help thinking the famous Reinhold Niebuhr prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” is particularly apt.
Finally, my mind goes back to the days when there were proper, Christian based, daily, school assemblies. I well recall the often repeated prayer by my headmaster at the time for “the mayor and corporation of this borough”. So I will be watching, asking awkward questions, exposing dodgy dealings, talking to and engaging with councillors. I will try to do my bit for the town as a community activist and not to forget to pray for our councillors.