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Councillor accused of ‘despicable’ comment in row over Council meeting transparency

Craigavon Civic Centre Council Chamber

An Alliance Party proposal to bring an item of confidential business into the public domain was rejected by Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council.

At the council’s monthly meeting on Monday, March 27, Alliance Party Councillor Peter Lavery raised an issue with the decision to discuss a potential reduction in the level of detail provided in council minutes behind closed doors.

Minutes are an official record of actions taken at a meeting. They are not a record of everything that was said but they do serve a historical and legal purpose.

He had previously raised the issue at a meeting of council’s governance, resources and strategy committee on Wednesday, March 8, but his proposal was defeated at the time with no councillors, except his party colleague Councillor Jessica Johnston, voting in favour of his proposal to discuss the matter in open business.

Speaking at the monthly meeting, Cllr Lavery explained members were informed of the reason as to why this item was being discussed during the behind closed doors session of the committee.

He told the chamber he did not feel this reason was adequate enough for the matter to remain confidential and proposed the item be brought into the open session of the meeting.

“There was a discussion at committee in relation to an item that we feel should be discussed in open business,” said Cllr Lavery.

“I requested further detail at the time as to why the item was in confidential business and during confidential business I was told the reason was that some previous papers came to confidential business before and that decisions taken in confidential business would eventually end up in the public domain anyway.

“This gives me some concern as I believe members of the public would have some concern in relation to a reduction in the minutes. Especially if they only find out after it has already been approved, when they are unable to do anything about it and there has been a reduction in transparency.

“I would like to discuss this further but I am conscious it is in confidential business so I would like to make a proposal that we be allowed to discuss the confidential item in open business now.”

Council’s strategic director of strategy and performance, Sharon McNicholl told the chamber there was discussion on this item during the confidential section of the committee meeting and explained the legislation allows council to keep such matters out of the public gaze.

“There was a fair bit of discussion of this in the confidential minutes and members will see the points I made in respect of the decision that has been made,” said Ms McNicholl.

“I said at the time that if members have concerns about this matter I am happy to look at the reasons it is in confidential and go through those with members, particularly for any future situations.

“The decision is there and is there in respect of a part of the legislation that allows us to do that.”

DUP group leader, Alderman Mark Baxter said he was a bit confused as to how the public can have any say over decisions council makes and asked for some clarity from Cllr Lavery on that point.

“I would be interested to know what the public can do about it anyway?” he asked.

“It is council that makes a decision, it is not the public’s role. You have to be elected to make or overturn a decision so what role do the public have? Could that be clarified please. I am puzzled by that suggestion.”

Cllr Lavery’s party colleague, Councillor Jessica Johnston seconded his proposal before the Lurgan councillor told the chamber he “would maybe place more importance on openness and transparency than Alderman Baxter”.

“I would like to discuss this information in a much more open fashion but given it is in confidential business I am obviously constrained by that,” said Cllr Lavery.

“That is why I want to discuss it in open business so the discussion can be had in full, in the public domain.”

Alderman Baxter accused Cllr Lavery of making a “despicable comment” before telling the chamber his opposition to the proposal to bring the matter into the public domain has “nothing to do with transparency”.

“This was debated at length at the committee and there was not one other party who voted for this proposal it was 13 votes to two, if memory serves,” he said.

“It was well debated and there were very valid reasons as to why it was debated in confidential business and it will come to the public when it is deemed necessary to do so.

“I am still puzzled and still do not have an answer as to how the public can overturn a decision made by council. How can the public do anything if they are not elected representatives?”

Cllr Lavery’s proposal was then put to a vote where it was defeated with only the three Alliance Party representatives voting in favour of it and the other 34 councillors present voting to keep the matter behind closed doors.

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