June 20 2013 Latest news:
By DAVID BLACKMORE
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Downham Market Town Council was tonight accused of “trying to gag” councillors from speaking to the media against council decisions.
Members sitting on tonight’s full council meeting approved a media relations policy which town councillor Jeffrey Reed said he was “sceptical” about.
Speaking at the meeting, he added: “I think this policy might scare councillors from doing what they have been elected to do.
“I feel uncomfortable about it and I believe the reason behind it is to gag councillors, like myself, from speaking to the press and to keep councillors in line.”
The adoption of the policy means councillors must now inform the council if a member of the press approaches them. Town clerk Jean Markwell and town mayor Robin Pegg could then decide on the format or the content of any response.
Mr Reed added: “I make it clear when I talk to the press that I do not speak on behalf of the council and that what I say are my personal opinions.”
But fellow town councillor Malcolm Starreveld told the meeting: “This policy does allow councillors to express their own personal opinions as long as they inform the town clerk they have been made.”
The council joins a growing number of town and parish councils across the region which have adopted press policies, including nearby Hunstanton town council and Barnham Broom parish council.
Hunstanton Town Council approved a media relations policy back in May 2010. Deputy Town Clerk Chris Amos said the policy protects the council and councillors.
He added: “Under the policy, any approaches by the press must be referred to the town clerk who will then issue a statement.”
Heidi Frary, clerk to Barnham Broom Parish Council, said the council adopted its media relations policy last year after seeking advice from the Norfolk Association of Local Councils.
“There was a possibility things could have got out of hand so we introduced our policy to give our councillors guidance on what they should or shouldn’t be doing and stop any awkward situations happening,” she added.
Meanwhile Wisbech town clerk Erbie Murat said: “As town clerk, I am the press officer. With 18 councillors, we can’t dictate who talks to the press but we make it clear to them they have a responsibility to the town council not to bring it into disrepute.
“Once the council has made a decision, all councillors have a duty to support this.”
Sue Lake, lead officer at the Norfolk Association of Local Councils, said media relations policies are “quite common” in the county.
She added: “It’s something larger councils tend to do rather than smaller councils because they are normally the ones contacted by the press.”
Alan Jones, spokesman for the National Association of Local Councils, added: “We are encouraging parish and town councils to develop a media relations policy to engage and be more open with the media and have guidelines on how they communicate with the media.
“Any councillor can talk to the media but if they are talking about an issue it needs to be made clear if they are speaking on behalf of the council or as a council member.”
But Robert Oxley, campaign manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, has also criticised the policy.
He said: “Councillors should be able to express a view in their elected capacity, that’s what we pay and vote for them for.
“Resident’s stump up a significant sum for councillors, they should have access to the people they elect both in person and via the media.
“An overzealous media control policy could easily undermine local democracy while costing taxpayers in the process.”
The introduction of the media relations policy comes after Stephen Teverson and Kathy Mellish quit as town councillors because they had not been able to agree with the line the council had taken for “some considerable time”.
In his email of resignation, Mr Teverson said: “I am no use to the council or the ratepayers, if I continue to publicly disassociate myself from [the town council’s] actions because I believe them to be inherently wrong.”
Mrs Mellish, who also resigned by email, said: “By joining the town council I hoped I could support the people of the town to ensure they receive value for their town precept.
“But this has been hindered as the council has, in my opinion, been steered by some as a cosy corner tea shop never being allowed to grow and flourish.”