Change to Exeter council’s constitution will allow public to pose questions

Members of the public could soon be able to given to opportunity to ask questions and participate at Exeter City Council meetings.

Proposals agreed by the authority’s executive on Tuesday night would see a number of changes made to its constitution made.

These include allowing public participation at scrutiny committees, the executive and full council.

Subject to ratification by next Tuesday’s full council meeting, a 15-minute public participation time limit would be created at the start of meetings.

Members of the public would be able to submit written questions prior to the meeting, to which a written answer would be given.

They would have the chance to ask a single supplementary question based on that answer at the meeting.

Other changes include the existing three scrutiny committees being scrapped. They would be replaced with two larger scrutiny committees – the strategic scrutiny committee and the customer focus scrutiny committee.

The convention that requires a seat on the executive to be allocated to a member from each political group would also be scrapped, meaning that the executive would likely consist solely of members from the largest political group.

Councillor Rob Hannaford, who chaired the working group which looked into the governance arrangements, said that the changes were needed to reboot scrutiny so it was respected, brings added value and is seen as a critical friend.

He added: “There should be public participation in the interests of transparency.

“We can look at how it runs for six months to see if details about questions or the time limit is right and that it won’t be abused by usual suspects putting in multiple questions about the same topic.

“But if we know our community and get three days’ notice of any question and officer notes to help us, why are we afraid of being asked questions that we could be asked on the A bus anyway.”

Leader of the council, Cllr Phil Bialyk, said that the changes were reflecting what happens in similar local authorities of size and political balance.

He added: “The deletion of the Exeter convention requiring the leader to allocate a seat on the executive to a member from each political group was initially predicated on a no overall control model where there was a need to work in this way.

“Labour are the majority party and we have been elected by the people of Exeter and will carry out that function, but won’t exclude any other councillor or member from being involved in decision.”

Neither Cllr Andrew Leadbetter, leader of the Conservative Group, and Cllr Kevin Mitchell, leader of the Progressive Group, who have seats on the executive, were in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting.

Cllr Bialyk said that Cllr Leadbetter and his group had told him they welcomed and supported the changes and that Cllr Mitchell indicated his group felt the same.

The new public participation scheme would enable a member of the public to ask questions at ordinary meetings of the council, the executive and scrutiny committees.

Questions submitted for meetings of the council or scrutiny committees must be about something the council is responsible, for while those posed to the executive must relate to an item on the agenda for that meeting.

Questions must be submitted to the relevant council officer at least three clear working days before the meeting and members of the public cannot ask more than one question per meeting.

Questions will be limited to 50 words, although Cllr Bialyk indicated they would not be rejected if they just went over the limit, and council, executive or scrutiny committee meetings will spend no longer than 15 minutes dealing with questions at any meetings.

Subject to approval at next Tuesday’s meeting, the changes to the constitution will be enacted immediately.

Cllr Bialyk said: “I hope this goes through and if we need to enact changes as we go on for common sense, then we will.”

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