The full council met to approve changes to its constitution which include giving the chief executive powers to spend up to £500,000 in ‘urgent situations’ – without consulting a committee first – and reducing council meetings in length from four and a half to three hours.
Ironically, the meeting lasted more than four hours just after the council voted to accept the reduced meeting length.
Chair Jim Brooks was forced to ask members not to ‘shout across the chamber’.
At one point he was told by Grant Roberts (Con, Arundel and Walberton) that he ‘did not have the authority to go against the constitution’ by allowing members to amend recommended rule changes after debate had closed.
Mr Brooks eventually allowed amendments, saying: “If I have to go to jail, I will.”
Councillor Ricky Bower (Con., East Preston), who chairs the Constitution Working Party, presented the changes which aim to smooth the transition to a committee system.
This sees decisions made by a group of councillors from different parties known as a ‘committee’, rather than a handful of senior councillors known as cabinet members.
The council’s legal adviser Solomon Agutu said this was to ensure officers and councillors are not ‘too tired to make the right decisions’.
But councillor Hugh Coster (Ind, Aldwick East) said: “We should not be meddling with the constitution without looking at it very carefully,
“I’m concerned about creeping secrecy within this council.”
Mr Coster thought proposals for ‘urgency sub-committees’ could see decisions taken ‘out of the public gaze’.
But Mr Agutu confirmed that urgency committees should meet in public and the requirement for fewer members to meet – rather than a whole committee- allows them to make decisions quickly.
It was agreed that urgency committees should have at least one member of the opposition for balance.
Council leader Shaun Gunner (Con, Rustington East) said the meeting was about ‘very minor amendments to the constitution’ which ‘the public do not care about’ and called for no further delay
But Matt Stanley (LDem, Marine) disagreed, saying: “These are decisions that we reduce the length of our meetings, we reduce the length of our speeches, and in some circumstances we don’t allow members to put questions to full council.”
Another change will stop party leaders from standing as council chair or vice-chair. This is because both should be ‘seen to be impartial’.
Most recommendations were passed in their original form with a few being amended.
Speeches at all meetings can now only last three minutes (instead of five); councillors will be able to record meetings; and public questions might be dealt with at committees instead of full council meetings.
Electronic voting in the council chamber could be coming soon but was not debated or accepted on Wednesday.
The Conservatives currently control the administration, but the switch to the committee system was agreed under the previous Lib Dem-led administration.