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Reporter kicked out of council’s talks about sale of building
WITNEY Town Council has been criticised for kicking the Oxford Mail out of a meeting for the fourth time.
It is the latest in a series of meetings that Witney Town Council has held behind closed doors.
But this time, a member of the public was allowed to stay for part of the meeting while the Oxford Mail was shut out.
The council met to discuss its plans to sell Langdale Hall to help pay for a multi-million pound renovation of the Corn Exchange.
Members said our reporter could not stay to report their discussions and tell readers about them.
They cited concerns that the paper had ‘misrepresented things’ in the past, yet offered no clarification. The newspaper had previously received no complaints about its coverage of the Langdale Hall or Corn Exchange issues.
Yesterday, 24 hours after the council refused to allow the Mail to make representations as to why there was no basis for throwing us out, the council stood by its position.
But town councillor Duncan Enright, who did not vote to exclude the press and public, said: “Council business should always be in public. I can think of extremely few elements of information which need to be held back.
“There are some things, such as commercial terms, which probably do need to be kept confidential, but 99 per cent of what we do should be open to those we represent.
“We should be open and transparent.
“Most of the times the town council has had misunderstandings is when it is not open about information. If you go to somewhere like West Oxfordshire District Council where there is a much bigger budget, they are substantially more open about things.”
Before the exclusion, town clerk Sharon Groth said the council’s public halls committee was discussing an undisclosed bid that would be submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for money to redevelop the Corn Exchange.
She said: “It [the bid] hasn’t been considered by the board and they are monitoring local press as there has been a great deal of misrepresentation. The advice we have taken is to consider it under closed session.”
Councillors did, however, allow Terry Powell, a member of the public, to be present for some of the meeting.
The Corn Exchange, in Market Square, was closed suddenly in November 2011 after a safety inspection uncovered serious problems.
Last November, the same committee discussed a valuation of the Langdale Hall site, but that part of its meeting was also closed to the press and public.
And in July last year, when councillors initially called for the sale of Langdale Hall, the discussion was again held in secret.
A week later, another meeting to discuss a separate investment in Witney’s sports facilities was closed to the press and public to “manage expectations”.
Speaking yesterday, Mrs Groth said: “The committee doesn’t like to exclude but actually at times there is a need to discuss commercially-sensitive information that shouldn’t be out there at the moment.
“Mr Powell was allowed to stay as an advisory member and the committee agreed that decision.
“We do issue press statements. It is a massive project and we have had meetings open to the press and public. We have been warned some of the information coming out hasn’t helped our case and at this time there is nothing to report because we don’t know if we have got that funding. If we don’t get it, we will look at Plan B.”
Town council member and mayor Peter Dorward did not return the Oxford Mail’s calls.
- Comment: Witney Town Council's secrecy is an insult to democracy in the heart of the Prime Minister's constituency
- Archive: Langdale Hall
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