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Tempers flare at council over remote attendance of members

'I think there could be a laziness from some members now they have got too comfortable babysitting at home.'

Craigavon Civic Centre Council Chamber

Tempers flared at a meeting of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council’s governance, resource and strategy following comments made about the councillors ability to attend meetings remotely.

At the committee’s meeting on Thursday, January 13, Councillor Paul Berry suggested councillors and officers needed to be in the chamber and those who were not had allowed “laziness” to creep in.

The matter was initially raised by Councillor Peter Lavery who, noting the response to this consultation was to be provided by council officers, said he would like to ensure it was known the local authority supports an extension to remote / hybrid meetings.

“I say that for four reasons, one is environmental impact, there are less people travelling to meetings now, the second is savings for the ratepayers with less expenses paid and the third is the increased transparency of our meetings now they are live streamed,” he said.

“The fourth reason centres around member and office wellbeing. They are able to conduct meetings from home without having to have the increased burden of additional childcare management.

“I would be of the view that within the officer’s response the benefits of the situation are articulated and ask for the option to be extended to allow the Council to continue to reap the benefits of this process.”

Noting everyone will have differing views on the subject, Cllr Berry said it would be better for the parties to submit their own views on this consultation.

“I am of the opinion that as things relax and get better in terms of a loosening of Covid regulations that we need to be around the table again and we need to look the officers in the eye to challenge them when we need to.

“It is good to see officers here tonight, there could be more and there could be more members here. I think there could be a laziness from some members now they have got too comfortable babysitting at home.

“We were elected to represent the people, I am not saying you are not representing them at home but we need to be round the table in the chamber and to me it is better to have a debate and conversation in person.”

These comments drew the ire of Councillor Julie Flaherty who said she did not like the suggestion that she was any less of a councillor because she was attending the meeting remotely.

“I am a wee bit lost for words,” said Cllr Flaherty.

“I don’t like the idea I am thought of as any less of a councillor because I am sitting in my own home on my third zoom of the day and will propose this response comes before Council.

Councillor Eoin Tennyson, seconded Cllr Flaherty’s proposal and described Cllr Berry’s remarks as “outrageous” and noted not all members own their own business.

“I think we have all represented our constituents pretty well throughout the pandemic and these comments are beyond belief,” he said.

“We don’t all own our own business here. Not all of us have the flexibility to come and go as we please. There will be members who have caring responsibilities, members who are asked to work overtime at short notice and members who are now able to attend meetings held during the day which they would not have been able to do previously.

“It is about accessibility, the environment and saving the rate payer money, it is very important for the future of local government beyond Covid-19.”

Councillor Thomas O’Hanlon asked Cllr Berry to withdraw his comments.

“I am sitting with a child on my knee and that child is getting a bottle. I don’t think I am doing my role as a councillor a disservice, in fact, I think I am something of a role model for men in society, where they take on more responsibility around the home,” he said.

“I think it is an outrageous comment, I would have expected better and would ask him to withdraw the comment that someone who is taking on the responsibilities at home is lazy.”

Councillor Darryn Causby said while remote meetings are more difficult than those in person, his party do not necessarily share “all of the same views” as Cllr Berry and called for parties to make an individual response to this consultation and this was supported by his party colleague Alderman Stephen Moutray.

“We are not going to get total agreement on this issue and I think parties must make their own response in relation to it and would propose they do just that,” said Alderman Moutray and this proposal was seconded by Cllr Causby.

With no agreement in the chamber on the best way forward, Cllr Flaherty’s proposal for the response to be debated at full council was put to a vote.

The proposal passed, with the 12 members of the Alliance Party, SDLP Sinn Fein and UUP present voting in favour and the four members of the DUP and Cllr Paul Berry voting against it.

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