Should the Leader of a council with a £10 million budget of public money promote or be involved with law-breaking?
That is the situation residents of the High Peak find themselves in today as a result of antics of Conservative Leader of the Borough Council Tony Ashton.
Councillor Tony Ashton is a Conservative councillor on both High Peak Borough Council and New Mills Town Council within the borough.
Cllr Ashton proposed a policy for co-options of new members of the town council that requires secret ballot to be the method of voting during council meetings when co-options are being decided. Cllr Ashton proposed this illegal policy to the New Mills town council meeting of 11 September 2017.
An up-front definition of the most important term used in this article: Illegal: Forbidden by law.
Here is why Cllr Ashton’s policy is illegal
The relevant extract of Cllr Ashton’s policy:
“Paragraph 5: Councillors shall vote by secret ballot under the agenda item.”
The law that governs the method of voting during town and parish council meetings is the Local Government Act 1972, Schedule 12, Paragraph 13: “13 (1) Unless otherwise provided by the council’s standing orders the manner of voting at meetings of a parish council shall be by a show of hands.”
The law refers to a council’s formal standing orders. The relevant part of the New Mills Town Council’s standing orders is paragraph 3 (q): “Unless standing orders provide otherwise, voting on a question shall be by a show of hands. At the request of a councillor, the voting on any question shall be recorded so as to show whether each councillor present and voting gave his vote for or against that question…"
Councillors Tony Ashton and Ray Atkins have erroneously claimed that the council’s standing orders have somehow “been changed”. To prove that they haven’t, here is the standing order specifying the method which must be used if the New Mills town council wishes to change its standing orders:
“Standing Order 25 (b): A motion to add to or vary or revoke one or more of the council’s standing orders, except one that incorporates mandatory statutory requirements, shall be proposed by a special motion, the written notice by at least 6 councillors to be given to the Proper Officer in accordance with standing order 9 above.”
At no time during this matter has the necessary written notice by at least six councillors been given to the town council’s Proper Officer. Therefore it is a fact that no change has been made to the council's standing orders.
New amendment, same illegal voting method
When Cllr Ashton’s illegal co-option policy came to the vote, an amendment proposed by LibDem Cllr Ray Atkins was carried. Unfortunately, this amendment also included the fatally flawed ‘secret ballot’ method of voting in New Mills town council meetings:
“Councillors shall vote by a show of hands under the agenda item, unless two or more councillors request a secret ballot, in which case voting on the co-option process shall be by secret ballot.”
First council meeting following the illegal new policy
On 13 November 2017 came the first attempt to use the illegal co-option policy in New Mills council chamber – illegal because of the prohibited ‘secret ballot’ method of voting that it contains.
What transpired was as follows:
The town council chairman read out Item 7 on the agenda, which was: ‘Co-option applications and decision for a Councillor for Whitle Ward’
Cllr Lance Dowson read out his prepared statement, published yesterday on HPT.
Chair of the council Barry Bate started to explain what would happen in this agenda item. There were three candidates for one seat. Ballot papers were prepared with the three names on.
The Town Clerk then held up the tenth (latest) edition of Arnold-Baker on Local Council Administration for all councillors to see. This is a fat volume with a striking yellow cover. The Clerk read out, verbatim, the part of that authoritative book which explains lawful voting during town and parish council meetings.
When voting time came, no-one present in the room seemed overtly interested in having a secret ballot. It would have been pointless if they had, because Cllr Lance Dowson explicitly exercised his legal right as a councillor to require a named vote on the agenda item.
Accordingly, all votes on the co-option candidates were by show of hands. This is how it must be on a well-run local council. We don't need to report who voted for whom; that is not the point of all this.
Here comes the 'Jerry's Final Thought' bit:
The fact that every councillor has the legal right at all times to a named vote on any decision being made by a council showed up the ultimate futility of this ‘secret ballot’ plot.
Unnecessary reputational and political self-harm was caused, and all for no benefit.
We look forward to the time we are able to report that the current illegal, unlawful co-option policy of New Mills town council has been corrected to comply with both the law and also with the openness and accountability standards that are now required of those in public life.
All that is needed to accomplish this is to strike out the sentence(s) in the policy that refer to ‘secret ballot’ as the method of voting.
Welcome successful candidate Joyce Tyldesley to membership of New Mills town council.