'Oh God almighty, this woman!' - Zoom council meeting descends into chaos
- Credit: YouTube/Norwich City Council
Twenty months into the pandemic, most of us have now got to grips with the etiquette of Zoom meetings. But at Norwich City Council the lessons are still being learned.
An online meeting descended into chaos after a councillor was heard bad-mouthing an opponent.
Trouble flared after the Green Party's Lesley Grahame was interrupted during a discussion about alcohol licensing by an unmuted Labour member, Sally Button, who appeared to say, "Oh God almighty, this woman!"
The remark prompted a series of complaints from other Green councillors, as lord mayor, Kevin Maguire, tried in vain to move the meeting on to other matters.
This further frustrated the Greens, who were eventually silenced when Mr Maguire appeared to close his laptop, to bring an end to the discussion.
There then followed an awkward couple of minutes delay to the meeting, while he had to get access again.
After the initial interruption from Ms Button, Mr Maguire said he had not seen who had made the remark, but asked them not to do so again.
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The matter seemed to be closed and the licensing discussion continued. But a few minutes later fellow Green councillor Ash Haynes demanded an apology on behalf of Ms Grahame saying the comment had been "absolutely unacceptable". She appeared to have misheard Ms Button, saying the remark had been "I hate that woman".
In response, Mr Maguire checked with the monitoring officer - who is present to maintain council standards - who accepted that there had been a breach of procedure but that it had been resolved.
However, as Mr Maguire tried to move the meeting on, Green councillors continued to demand an apology. Lucy Galvin, the party's new leader, said that "hateful speech" had been used and that it was "dangerous behaviour" for the meeting to continue without addressing it.
Things finally came to a head in a terse exchange between Green councillor Ben Price and Mr Maguire.
Mr Price said: "Tonight what we have experienced has been a very disappointing action by a councillor.
"The lord mayor has made his judgement but what I would like to say to the lord mayor is you are not reflecting well on this council."
Mr Price was interrupted by Mr Maguire, who told him any concerns could be raised in writing to the monitoring officer.
The lord mayor was then accused of shutting down debate by Mr Price, who said Mr Maguire needed to adjust his behaviour.
In response, Mr Maguire first appeared to cover his camera with a sheet of paper and then the sound of a laptop closing was heard.
The monitoring officer, Leah Mickleborough, apologised to councillors, saying Mr Maguire was having a "technical issue".
But Green councillor Jamie Osborn said: "Sorry, that wasn't a technical issue, the lord mayor just shut his laptop to try and shut out councillor Price."
Mr Maguire disappeared from the meeting for over two minutes while Ms Mickleborough said the lord mayor was having a password issue and Labour councillors started talking about football. The meeting was taking place during Norwich City's match against Newcastle United.
On Wednesday night Ms Button said: “I would like to put on record my sincere apology to Cllr Grahame for any offence caused following my remarks at our recent council meeting.
"As fellow councillors, I’ve worked with Cllr Grahame for many years and can honestly say that I meant no malice with my careless outburst.
“Regardless of the political party we each represent, all 39 elected city councillors are proud advocates of the work of the council and the city we’re here to serve. I look forward to continuing with that important work.”
Norwich City Council is the only authority in Norfolk continuing to hold online meetings after the government refused to extend online meeting powers.
The council gets around current laws by making decisions online and then approving them at an in-person meeting the next day with a smaller number of councillors.
This is not the first time Ms Button has had issues with technology, in 2018 she apologised after writing a Facebook post in which she suggested an animal rights activist "might get rabies".
Tuesday's controversy is the latest in a series of online council meetings since the beginning of the pandemic where awkward incidents and arguments have been recorded.
In December 2020, Liberal Democrat councillor Judith Lubbock was caught branding her colleagues "idiots" in a discussion about building flats on a former scout hut.
Most famously, a clip of a row at Cheshire's Handforth Parish Council, where stand-in clerk Jackie Weaver tried to keep order, went viral, with more than six million views.