< The Good Councillors Guide

  1. Meetings
  2. Being prepared
  3. At the meeting
  4. After the meeting

8    Meetings

Council meetings are important; this is where you play your part as a decision maker. The Chairman is in charge of the meeting, and the Clerk (or perhaps a deputy) supports the council as it discusses business. The meeting is the council team in action.

Council meetings and committee meetings are formal events, not social occasions. They have a clear purpose – to make decisions – and are not just talking shops. Furthermore, they are public events; the meetings must be advertised and the press and public have a right to observe, record and report on how the council operates. The same approach should be adopted for sub-committees. Exceptions are when sensitive issues are discussed (such as legal, contractual or staffing matters) and then the council can agree to exclude the press and public for just that item of business.

The council should decide on a schedule of meetings for the year.

  • Council meetings are meetings of the full council. All councillors are expected to attend.
  • Committee meetings bring together a smaller number of councillors to concentrate on a specific
  • function of the council and share the workload

Some committees are permanent or standing committees, but others are set up for a short-term project. Many councils have a permanent Planning Committee allowing them to comment on planning applications as required without convening a full council meeting.

Some committees are advisory; they make recommendations to the full council, which then makes the decisions. There are also executive committees where the full council delegates responsibility for certain decisions to the committee. The committee then reports its decisions to the full council. This helps the Planning Committee to make decisions without referring to the full council.

  • Sub-committees are appointed by a committee to focus discussion on a specific topic among an even smaller group of councillors. Otherwise, they operate like committees.
  • Working parties or ‘task-and-finish’ groups are occasionally set up for a short-term purpose. They are not subject to the strict rules that apply to formal council meetings and do not need to be held in public. A working party cannot make a decision on behalf of the council, but they can explore options and present these to the council for a decision.
  • There are rules about who is permitted to join a committee or sub- committee. Sometimes non-councillors can be included (although with a few exceptions, they cannot vote). This is an excellent means of involving others, particularly young people, in council work.
Two annual meetings

If you are elected in May your first meeting will be the Annual Meeting of the Council. This is where you elect a Chairman and probably a vice-Chairman, and appoint committee members and representatives to other bodies. Remember that this is a meeting of the council.

The Annual Parish or Town Meeting is not a council meeting. It is a meeting of the Parish or Town electors taking place between 1 March and 1 June. Electors can contribute to the Agenda and in practice these meetings often celebrate local activities and debate current issues in the community. The Chairman of the council, any two councillors or any six electors can call the Annual Parish or Town Meeting. The Chairman, if present, will Chair the meeting. It is best practice to hold the Annual Meeting of the Council and the Annual Parish Meeting on different occasions to avoid confusion.

Standing orders

The rules for the Annual Meeting of the Council will be contained in the council’s standing orders. Remember, these include rules of procedure laid down in legislation and additional regulations chosen by your council. Standing orders help the council to operate smoothly. For example, a third of the councillors (or three, whichever is the greater) must be present for the meeting to go ahead; this is known as the quorum. The council can set a higher quorum for committees through standing orders if it wishes. Other standing orders will determine, for example:

  • the order of business
  • the length of meetings and the duration of speaking time
  • the schedule of meetings for the year
  • delegation to committees and officers
  • voting requirements
  • procedures for public participation.
Respecting the Chairman

The Chairman is in charge during council meetings; this is an office created by legislation commanding respect. Remember, the Chairman is elected at the Annual Meeting of the Council for one year. Chairmen have a duty to ensure that council meetings run smoothly, that all business is properly considered and all councillors who wish to speak can do so. It is good practice for the Chairman to refer to the Clerk for advice.

The Chairman has few special powers. For instance, it is unlawful for a council to delegate decision making to any individual councillor and the Chairman is no different. However, when a vote is tied, the Chairman may use a second, or casting vote.

The Chairman often enjoys a special relationship with the public, especially in a town where the Chairman is also the mayor. It is the Chairman who leads the Annual Town or Parish Meeting (remember, this is not a council meeting) and opens the fete, or welcomes official visitors from abroad. This is one reason why the Chairman can receive an allowance to support this important public role. If a local council resolves to do so, councillors can also claim an allowance, taking into consideration the level recommended by the principal council’s independent remuneration panel.

Where councillors, Clerk and Chairman work together as a team they combine knowledge and skills to deliver real benefits to the community they serve. Good working relationships, mutual respect and an understanding of their different roles are vital. Conflict between these key players, especially during meetings in front of the press or public can damage the council.


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9    Being prepared

Your first meeting as a councillor can be daunting as you wonder what will happen and where to sit. Hopefully other councillors will be welcoming.

At, or before, your first meeting you must sign the declaration of acceptance of office. In law, you are not a councillor until you sign. At the same time, if your council has agreed, you should undertake to observe the Code of Conduct, which you must read.

At least three clear days before each council, committee or sub-committee meeting, you should receive a summons and Agenda. The three clear days is established in law because it is important to be notified of issues to be discussed. Topics requiring a decision cannot be added to the Agenda after the deadline has passed; they must wait for another meeting.

Each Agenda item should make it very clear what you as a councillor are expected to do and be precise about the subject under discussion. For example, an Agenda item saying “footpaths” gives you no idea what to expect. It is more helpful to know that your task at the meeting is:

To receive a report from Cllr Gorie on the condition of footpaths in the parish and to agree action in response to proposals for repairs (copy of report attached).

It is actually unlawful to make a decision, especially a decision to spend money, without sufficient (three clear days) warning. Vague Agenda items that don’t specify exact business (such as Matters Arising, Correspondence and Any Other Business) are dangerous and should be avoided, because the council cannot make unexpected decisions.

Putting the Agenda together is the Clerk’s responsibility. The Clerk must sign the Agenda and can decide how it will be set out. This process is often undertaken in consultation with the Chairman. You may ask the Clerk to add items to the Agenda if you feel a relevant subject should be discussed.

The 5 Ws help councillors prepare for a meeting.

  • What is the meeting for?
  • What part should I play?
  • What papers must I read?
  • Which people do I need to consult?
  • What did I promise to do before this meeting?

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10    At the meeting

What if you cannot attend? Remember, you have a duty to attend but sometimes things crop up and you are unable to make it. You must contact the Clerk with an apology and explanation. A darts match is not an adequate excuse whereas illness or work commitments are acceptable reasons. If you fail to attend any meetings for six months, you will automatically cease to be a councillor unless the council approved your reason for absence before the end of the six month period.

It is, of course, the Chairman’s job to manage the meeting by introducing Agenda items, inviting members to speak, focusing discussion and clarifying matters for decision. Councillors, having engaged in discussion, vote for or against the proposal by a show of hands. Matters to be decided are called proposals or motions. Decisions, called resolutions, are recorded in the minutes as, for example, “It was resolved that the council will contribute £2000 to the community bus scheme.” If you have no view on a proposal, or cannot decide, you can abstain, but you shouldn’t do this too frequently. Normally voters’ names are not minuted but if necessary, you can ask for names to be recorded. Remember that council decisions are corporate decisions.

You should keep contributions short and to the point; you probably don’t enjoy listening to others who speak for too long. Always work through the Chairman and try not to score points off fellow councillors. Never engage in personal attacks on others – however tempting. If you can add a dash of humour and common sense to the proceedings, then you will be a pleasure to work with.

The council must advertise the meetings by putting up public notices; electors have a right to attend, record and report on public meetings. You may be wondering when they have their say. Many councils encourage members of the public to speak and ask questions in a short, defined period, early in the meeting.

The meeting must remain quorate at all times, so if you need to leave during a council meeting always warn your Clerk and Chairman beforehand.

As a rule, meetings should not last more than two hours otherwise concentration begins to lapse. A well-crafted Agenda with precise topics for discussion is a valuable tool to help the Chairman bring the meeting to a close on time.

A resolution is the decision taken when the outcome of a motion or proposal has been agreed.


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11    After the meeting

Decisions have been taken and these need to be implemented. The Clerk or the minuting secretary writes the minutes as a legal record of what was decided at the meeting. It is important that the minutes are accurate and therefore the minutes of the last meeting are confirmed and signed at the start of the next meeting. It is a good idea if the minutes record clearly the actions to be taken following the meeting.

What happens if a decision needs to be taken between meetings? Where the matter needs full discussion, the Chairman might call an extraordinary meeting, but delegation is a useful tool. Section 101 (of the Local Government Act 1972) allows a council to delegate the power to make decisions to an officer, a committee, a sub-committee or another council. It is good practice to specify in standing orders the kind of decisions that the Clerk can make such as routine decisions, dealing with emergencies or spending small sums of money. Standing orders may require decisions to be taken after consultation with two councillors (including the Chairman) but the decision remains with the officer. Most importantly, the council must not allow delegation to a single councillor – not even to the Chairman.

So councils exist to make and implement decisions. Part Four looks at how councils can be active on behalf of local people.


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< The Good Councillors Guide

 

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