FRESH calls for more council meetings to be held on an evening has sparked a fierce debate between councillors.
With the exception of full council, the vast majority of Hartlepool Borough Council meetings are held during office hours Monday to Friday.
Putting Hartlepool First’s (PHF) spokesman David Riddle and Councillor Jonathan Brash want to see more committee meetings held after 5.30pm to allow those members unable to make them during the day, and more members of the public, the opportunity to attend.
But council leader Christopher Akers-Belcher and Conservative group leader Ray Martin-Wells say councillors knew when they stood for the post that most meetings are held during the day and that the cash-strapped local authority can’t afford the additional cost of having meetings at night.
Coun Riddle and Coun Brash, who refers to himself as independent Labour but is classed as independent by the council, are both teachers.
Coun Brash said: “As a teacher I cannot simply walk out in the middle of a lesson. Is it not fair and reasonable to split meetings so that everyone has the opportunity to attend?
“Even more important are the public. If you want to attend a meeting of your council, but have a full time job, you are effectively banned.”
Coun Riddle said: “Being a councillor should be a vocation, a calling, a desire to do good for the community. We need to revert back to a situation where councillors are hard working, successful people in their own right.
“This could be in their own business or the private or public sector. We need to attract, teachers, doctors, lawyers, blue collar workers, people who actually understand the day-to-day complexity of a ‘normal working life’. To do this, our council needs to accommodate for people who work full time accordingly.
“Meetings should be proportionately scheduled outside of the working day, beyond 5.30pm.”
But Coun Akers-Belcher said: “I find it ludicrous that someone would apply to be a councillor, then try and change the terms and conditions.
“They new the role and remit when they put themselves up for election.
“Overall the council is already facing a 38 per cent reduction in our net budget without imposing additional cost pressures on the staff budgets because certain opposition councillors fail to exercise their right for paid time off work for carrying out what is a public service.”
That stance was supported by Coun Ray Martin-Wells, who said: “We all know when we put up for election that the majority of council meetings, other than full council, are run during the day.
“This is to enable all committees to be fully serviced by both democratic services officers and officers relevant to the individual committees.”
Coun Martin-Wells said there would be an increased cost to the taxpayer if more meetings were held at night with additional heating and lighting costs, adding that officers have family commitments and a change could have a detrimental impact on staff morale.