A call to cut cash for councillors working from home in East Devon amid the pandemic has come under fire, sparking criticism over a bid to reduce allowances.
Councillor Colin Brown (Dunkeswell and Otterhead) leader of the Conservative Group at East Devon District Council (EDDC), told a full council meeting that councillors were ‘taking taxpayers’ money for sitting at home rather than being held to account in public’.
Councillor Geoff Jung said he believed the members earned their money, were working longer hours, and ‘deserve a thank you from members of the public and other councillors’.
Cllr Jack Rowland said democracy had ‘been improved’ thanks to virtual meetings, with increased attendance and better accessibility.
Cllr Brown’s comments were made earlier this month during a debate about EDDC continuing to hold its meetings virtually, and councillors’ working hours.
He said councillors should be paid less because they were working from home, sparking a reaction from his colleagues.
Cllr Brown said councillors’ allowances should be cut, and that special responsibility allowances – an extra sum paid to senior councillors who have more work – be entirely withdrawn.
The comments, during a debate over continuing with virtual council meetings, drew the ire of many of his colleagues who say they have been working long hours throughout the pandemic.
Councillor Geoff Jung said that it was a ‘no brainer’ to continue to meet virtually, adding he was very upset ‘by the grotesque insinuation’ that members were not earning their allowances simply because they were working from home.
He said: “The Covid emergency has meant that I and all cabinet members’ workload has actually increased dramatically.”
Cllr Jung told councillors he had been working six days a week with no holiday for two years, adding: “Rather than handing back any money I think we deserve a thank you from members of the public and other councillors.”
Councillor Jack Rowland (Independent East Devon Alliance, Democratic Alliance Group, Seaton) described Cllr Brown’s proposal to remove special responsibility allowances as ‘utter garbage’ because, he said, the members receiving them were continuing to do extra hours, despite not meeting in person.
Councillor Sarah Jackson (Independent East Devon Alliance, Democratic Alliance Group, Axminster) also criticised the Tory councillor’s arguments.
She said: “The implication of what he says seems to be that those members are not doing additional work above that of a basic level of councillor and that simply untrue.
“Meetings have continued and work has continued to go on by members of the cabinet, chairs of committees and officers. I don’t think what’s suggested [by Cllr Brown]is fair, reasonable or transparent because it gives the wrong impression of the work that councillors are doing.”
Cllr Jackson said virtual meetings allow some members who are suffering from long Covid to carry out their council roles where they might otherwise have been unable to do so if obliged to meet in person.
Cllr Jack Rowland said: “I actually think our democracy has been improved by what we’ve been doing because we’ve got a greater attendance through Zoom meetings.
“It doesn’t detract from the public getting involved at all. In fact, I understand the public viewings of recordings of council meetings are higher than if we had face-to-face meetings in Blackdown House with the public attending.
During the debate councillors expressed an interest in creating hybrid meetings, where members can choose to meet in person or virtually.
Plans for this are expected to be developed in the coming months.
Councillor Steve Gazzard (Liberal Democrats, Democratic Alliance Group, Exmouth Withycombe Raleigh) said that although he wished the council would meet in person again, it had to continue to prioritise safety.
He said: “Not only must we think of ourselves. We’ve got to think of our families, our loved ones – and we have to think of all the staff that we employ.
“It’s still a very dangerous situation that we find ourselves in at the moment.”
In the face of rising Covid cases and concerns over the Omicron variant, the councillors did eventually agree to continue with virtual meetings until at least May 10, 2022.
The decision was passed with 32 votes in favour, one against and seven abstentions.
Following a High Court ruling, most local councils have been meeting in person since May 7, 2021.
However, following an ‘extraordinary’ council meeting in July, East Devon councillors agreed to ‘consultative’ meetings until at least January 17, 2022 because of the pandemic.
This format will continue, with the council holding virtual meetings over Zoom that reach ‘indicative decisions’ which are then rubber-stamped by the chief executive or senior officers.
The only exception is the budget meeting in February 2022, for which EDDC is legally obliged to meet in person.
All East Devon council meetings are currently streamed live on YouTube.