If you ask a public question via email, and nobody responds, does it make a sound?
So, what are we to make of Medway Council’s proposal to limit public questions because email is apparently a good alternative when hardly any councillors answer their emails?
As our investigation established, only 14 out of 55 Medway councillors bothered to reply to questions. More damningly, not a single member of the Cabinet – the councillors that currently answer public questions in meetings – responded in any way.
To reiterate, the people that are currently forced to answer questions at meetings are the least likely to answer public questions by choice.
At the previous council meeting, Cllr Mackness, the portfolio holder in charge of this issue, insisted that public questions were not needed because residents can contact him via email.
Cllr Mackness did not respond to our email with questions on the subject.
That is not to say that public questions at Medway Council meetings shouldn’t be reformed in any way. Many councils only allow the public to ask one question and a supplementary at meetings, whereas Medway allows two plus two supplementaries. A number of councils limit any member of the public to only asking questions at two meetings per year, whereas Medway allows the same person to ask questions at every meeting, so four times per year.
A more interesting arrangement is that a number of councils have a smaller number of public questions at full council meetings, but allow 10-15 minutes of public questions at all other meetings, from planning committees to overview and scrutiny committees. This allows questions to be asked, on the record, at more specialist meetings, on relevant topics. If the aim of the proposed changes to stop grandstanding at the (relatively) well attended full council meeting, this would seem like a good solution that still maintains public scrutiny. Indeed, Tony Jeacock, the Medway Liberal Democrat chairman will ask whether or not this is possible at Thursday’s meeting.
It is unlikely that much can be done to stop the proposals. They will go to a vote on Thursday, and the Conservatives have such a stranglehold over the council in Medway, with the councillors terrified of defying the party whip, that it seems all but certain that these changes will happen. With four years until the next elections and an opposition that borders on irrelevant, it’s very likely that after Thursday, proper public scrutiny in Medway will be a thing of the past.