THREE Dromore councillors have helped vote down a proposal from a fourth that the district council should lift the veil of secrecy from all of its committee meetings.
Of Dromore’s elected representatives, only party colleague Councillor Paul Rankin backed DUP Councillor Hazel Gamble’s motion “that Banbridge District Council makes its committees open and transparent and therefore all members of the public and Press can attend its commmittee meetings if they so wish”.
When the motion was put before last week’s full council assembly - one of only two monthly council meetings routinely open to the Press, the other being the mid-monthly Public Services Liaison Committee meeting - local Ulster Unionists Carol Black and Olive Mercer and Dromore Sinn Fein Councillor Paul Gribben voted against.
Likewise opposed were Ulster Unionists Ian Burns, Glenn Barr, John Hanna and Elizabeth Ingram, the SDLP’s Seamus Doyle and Marie Hamilton and Sinn Fein’s Brendan Curran.
With the UUP’s Joan Baird absent due to a bereavement and Alliance’s Sheila McQuaid abstaining, the DUP was left isolated in its support for the motion, Councillors David Herron, Jim McElroy and Junior McCrum joining Mr. Rankin in falling in behind Ms. Gamble, who said later she was “extremely disappointed” that the parties concerned all lined up against the proposal.
Among those to speak during the debate, Mr. Hanna said all organisations held confidential meetings and he insisted councillors could speak more forthrightly in the absence of the Press at committee meetings. He wondered if it was Ms. Gamble who recently leaked information about a committee debate on a Sinn Fein proposal to erect Irish language signage in the district, a suggestion she in turn denied.
Insisting councillors had nothing to hide, Mr. Doyle nevertheless championed the committee system, a system Mr. Curran said was designed to streamline proceedings.
Unconvinced, Ms. Gamble later said, “I do not believe there is a need for secrecy when it comes to how we are spending ratepayers’ money or indeed how we prioritise and deliver services to the people who elected us; I do not believe there is anything to be gained by keeping the public in the dark regarding our deliberations, discussions and decision-making.
“I think it is imperative when we are discussing issues of importance to the general public that the electorate should not be denied the opportunity to analyse the views and arguments made on various issues. Ultimately, we are accountable to the public and they should have access to the decision-making process. “As public representatives we should be seeking to restore public confidence in the political system and I believe one way to instil this is to open up the windows on how we arrive at decisions, thus making the democratic system more accessible.
“We ought not have a system in which elected representatives can hold one view in committee, only then to adopt a completely opposing viewpoint when the Press are present; I do not believe the electorate should be treated with this kind of contempt due to inconsistency.”
The council newcomer said she had been advised the majority of the province’s local authorities operated an open committee policy.
“Other parties appear content to adhere to this policy in other council areas,” she said, “and I would question why the largest group would not support such a move.
“I would assure the public that the DUP group wishes to see a clear, transparent system of local government in Banbridge District Council.”