Belfast council row continues over virtual meetings
A row at Belfast City Council over virtual meetings has continued as a proposal to suspend July holidays and resume a full agenda was voted down today.
Only 18 of the council’s 60 councillors were hosted in the council’s first virtual meeting, which was open to the public.
The meeting was called for an SDLP motion urging the council to consider “immediately holding virtual monthly meetings of the council, committees and working groups.” An Alliance amendment added the council also gives up the July holidays.
The DUP and Sinn Féin so far have resisted calls for regular meetings to return before August. They were joined by the UUP and PUP during today’s meeting to continue the current system of delegated authority decision making – in which the Chief Executive Suzanne Wylie is responsible.
Alliance, the SDLP, the Green Party and People Before Profit all voted for an immediate return to business, with virtual meetings accessible to the public. They lost by 11 votes to seven.
Virtual conference meetings of the party group leaders, held away from the public eye, will continue. There will be a ‘practice’ Strategic Policy and Resources meeting next week, and two more before August. There will also be a full remote council meeting with all 60 members in July. A return to a full agenda by remote conference, and open to the public, will begin in August.
Chief Executive Suzanne Wylie said: “We do not have many staff here at City Hall at all. With some staff furloughed and many working from home, it makes things incredibly difficult.
“Primarily the vast amount of time by senior managers is spent on recovery in all its forms – looking at all our offices, looking at all our facilities, when we can open them again, looking at when we can get staff back into work and how.”
She said “recovery for both communities, and the wider economy,” was “taking up all the senior staff’s time at this point,” and added “It would be difficult to service all the committees if that was to begin again tomorrow.”
All of Northern Ireland’s other councils have held full council meetings, involving all councillors – which Belfast is yet to do. Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon council, Derry and Strabane Council, and Antrim and Newtownabbey Council have already announced they will resume full schedules of council and committee meetings virtually in June and July.
DUP party group leader George Dorrian said: “We asked last week as group leaders a direct question of the Chief Executive, that if we seek to continue with all these working groups, committees and meetings, are we distracting staff away from work around the recovery plan. The answer was a very clear yes.”
He described the motion to resume a full agenda of meetings as ‘grandstanding.”
SDLP party group leader Donal Lyons said: “We have a lot of decisions to take, these decisions are going to be tough and in the interests of basic accountability and political transparency these decisions have to be made in a public forum.
“I’m not suspecting that thousands of people will be glued to their phones or their tablets to gaze upon our every word. But they have a right should they choose to do so, and the media have the right to report what the rationale of the different parties were when the decisions were taken.”
People Before Profit Councillor Matthew Collins said: “It’s unbelievable the idea that the reason we are not having open, democratic and public meetings is because people are too busy.” He said he was “disappointed council officers gave political cover” to continued delegated authority, and added the current situation amounted to “democracy through party group leaders.”
Alliance Councillor Kate Nicholl, said later the meeting was a “farce and a complete let down”
She added: “The Local Government Act was changed almost two months ago to allow all Council and Committee meetings to move online quickly. This should never have been up for discussion – instead we find ourselves in a situation where four parties are content to usher in an era of closed-door decision making at City Hall. It is not acceptable.
“As a ratepayer I’m angry that full openness and transparency has been removed, as an elected member I’m frustrated I’ve been blocked by others from representing those who elected me and finally I’m disappointed in all those who have stood in the way of democracy.”