Question time?

Coun Jonathan Brash
Coun Jonathan Brash

A COUNCILLOR is calling for a more “open” approach to the way public questions are dealt with at council meetings.

Labour councillor Jonathan Brash, who represents the Burn Valley ward, has put forward seven suggestions which he believes will open up the democratic process.

Coun Brash said members have a “moral responsibility” to ensure town residents can question councillors and hold them to account.

It comes ahead of a report by a working group of the council’s constitution committee, which is expected to go before the full council in either February or March, and will make a series of recommendations about public questions.

If changes are made then they will come into force from May when the council changes its governance arrangements from a mayoral system to a committee system made up of councillors.

As it currently stands questions for full council meetings have to be submitted seven days in advance and if they are accepted then members of the public can ask their question and follow that up with two supplementary questions.

Coun Brash said: “I believe we need to do far more to open up council to the public, including expanding and enshrining the right of the public to ask the tough questions of their councillors.

“We have a moral responsibility to ensure that Hartlepool people can question us and hold us to account.

“Rather than try to limit public questions, councillors should be promoting their use as a means of engaging the public.”

Coun Brash has proposed the following:

l Retaining supplementary questions;

l Reducing the deadline for submission of public questions;

l People should be able to ask questions without notice;

l All councillors should be able to be questioned, not just certain ones;

l Look again at the restriction of 30 minutes at council meetings for questions.

l Questions should be selected by way of a lottery.

Coun Brash also called for the role of the monitoring officer to be “strictly limited” to only matters about the law.

Coun Brash added: “The public are our bosses and we have an obligation to answer to them.

“Thomas Jefferson said ‘When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty’.

“If expanding public questions is something that councillors fear, then I would argue that this is a good thing and something I would welcome wholeheartedly.”

Labour councillor Stephen Akers-Belcher, who chairs the constitution committee, said it was too early to say what the recommendations of the working group would be but said as chair of council he often lets public questions go on longer than 30 minutes.

He added: “There is going to be a report from the working group about the constitution going to full council soon and all members will be able to vote on it.

“There has been a consultation exercise and members were asked to give their views.”