Chairperson "followed Politburo's playbook"
A Mid Devon council meeting has been compared to Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship of the Soviet Union.
The surprising claim was made after a group of councillors complained about the running of the district council’s cabinet meeting on Tuesday 1 February, which contained a packed agenda of over 20 items, including the new budget.
The group submitted a motion to the authority’s scrutiny committee held this week, claiming the agenda was too long and that several items “could and should have been placed on the agenda of another meeting.”
“This gave very little time for discussion and questioning of important items of business, especially by non-cabinet members,” wrote Councillors Graeme Barnell, Simon Clist, Elizabeth Lloyd and Ashley Wilce.
The motion claimed some questions were not answered and that the meeting was chaired by council leader Bob Deed (New Independent, Cadbury) in a way “that was perceived to be extremely disrespectful towards non-cabinet members, bordering on hostile and autocratic.”
“With one notable exception, non-cabinet members felt as though they were routinely and aggressively interrupted by the chair and prevented from making valid points or from entering into any discussion about key items,” it added.
During the debate on the motion, Cllr Barnell (Lib Dem, Newbrooke) said the management of the meeting “seemed to follow the Joseph Stalin playbook of Politburo management,” a reference to the former Soviet dictator and his all-powerful executive committee.
This was evidenced in how the agenda was “unmanageably long,” Cllr Barnell said, as well as by allowing “cabinet members to expand at length about the wisdom of their proposals, thereby limiting the time available for anybody else to suggest alternatives.”
He also suggested it was chaired in a way that tried to prevent questions being asked and non-cabinet members who had managed to “ask a question or, god forbid, express a point of view” were interrupted.
“This is a clear mismanagement of decision-making and is fundamentally wrong. It is completely out of step with the Nolan principles and with the council’s own principles of good decision-making,” Cllr Barnell claimed.
He added that it “brings the council into disrepute and corrodes trust and confidence in the executive.”
He asked the cabinet to review the management of the meeting and requested better collaboration with non-cabinet members.
Another of the motion’s signatories, Cllr Wilce (Ungrouped, Cullompton North) said: “I have to say from listening to that meeting, I was appalled by the way that it was conducted and I can only think that any member of the public that listened to it would feel the same way.”
He and Cllr Clist (Lib Dem, Upper Culm) both claimed their pre-submitted questions were not answered during the meeting. Cllr Wilce called it “totally wrong” not to discuss his, and “an abuse” of the chairman’s discretion.
In response, Cllr Deed defended his handling of events.
“As has been acknowledged, there was a very long agenda,” he said. “I did take the view that in order that the meeting only took as long as it needed to take, I didn’t think it would be appropriate to allow any members to speak in a way that perhaps took us slightly away from the agenda.”
As a result, Cllr Deed said he decided to “only allow members to ask questions,” adding he was “perfectly entitled to do that” due to being in charge of the meeting and that, by definition, a chair is autocratic.
“Yes, there were three members where I did try to stop them talking and it took a while. There were two members who wanted to argue with me.
“Well, that was sad because there seems to be a lack of understanding that a chair is a chair, and one therefore needs to abide by the time-honoured rules.”
He added: “I wasn’t trying to be offensive to anybody. I wasn’t trying to cut down any subsequent discussion, but I though it appropriate to ask that only questions be asked. If it has offended people because they didn’t understand the process or the role of the chair, I’m sorry.”
Cllr Deed concluded: “Everybody knows that I did not take that stance in any previous meeting while I’ve been on this council. It was because of the very heavy workload on that particular meeting that I took the attitude that I did.”
The deputy leader, Councillor Bob Evans (Conservative, Lower Culm), said it was “a little bit unbecoming” and “an insult” to be associated with Joseph Stalin – “a dictator who was responsible for the deaths of millions of citizens.”
“We can all have an opinion, and we call all think what’s right and what’s wrong, and what could have been done a little bit better … however to come out with a pre-conceived, pre-written, pre-notified comment such as that I think is slightly wrong.”
He suggested the remark be withdrawn and reminded councillors that they operate under an agreed constitution and cabinet system, but Cllr Barnell said he made the Stalin reference in relation to his style of meetings, not “to compare character or dictatorial tendencies.”
Councillor Barry Warren (Lower Culm), chairman of the scrutiny committee said Cllr Deed was “faced with a very, very heavy agenda” and suggested future such meetings could be split into two.
The committee agreed to note the motion and for other groups of the council to review the issues raised.