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‘Council needs to improve its transparency’
Updated 11:21am Wednesday 19th March 2014 in News
WITNEY Town Council needs to get guidance on how to become more open, according to one of its members.
Duncan Enright has sent a letter to mayor Peter Dorward suggesting that the council seeks advice on how to improve its transparency.
His move follows a series of committee meetings from which the Witney Gazette and members of the public have been excluded and accusations of secrecy by residents.
Mr Enright, the Labour councillor for Witney East ward, spoke out after another committee meeting was held behind closed doors on Monday for two agenda items.
He said: “The council belongs to the people of the town and it’s our duty to communicate our business in the open, as long as it doesn’t include confidential information, about members of staff, for example.
“But the council has quite narrow definitions of what is confidential at the moment and I think we need to consider them more widely.”
Last week, a Gazette reporter was told to leave a meeting of the public halls committee during discussions about the future of the Corn Exchange and the Langdale Hall.
Members cited concerns that the paper had “misrepresented things” in the past but offered no clarification on what this meant at the time.
At the annual town meeting last Wednesday, several residents said they were concerned about the meetings taking place in private and asked for more communication.
Woodford Mill resident Tony Stark said: “It doesn’t matter about it being a long-term project, people like to know what’s going on, otherwise it feels quite secretive.”
On Monday, the finance and general purposes committee’s seven members again voted unanimously to sit in private.
Explaining the decision, town clerk Sharon Groth said the two items were commercially sensitive. One was a discussion on property leases and the other was about staff.
Mr Enright proposed inviting someone experienced in local government to help the town council.
In his letter to Mr Dorward, he said it had been clear from what was said at the town meeting that residents were unhappy about the lack of information.
He said: “The aim here is to clarify the responsibility of councillors for their work, including letting the people they represent know what they are doing, and should therefore relieve the burden on our hard-working staff, rather than impose new duties.”
Mr Enright suggested councillors should engage with residents more through the press, the council’s website and social media.
He said Oxford City Council had a good reputation for open conduct and proposed inviting an officer to a meeting to offer guidance.
Mr Dorward said he would like to speak to Mr Enright about the letter before making a full comment.
But he added: “The whole issue is being considered in a positive light and from the annual town meeting we discussed ways in which the council could project information about a variety of matters that seem to have the interest of the townsfolk.”
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