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Five Months Later, Parish Councillors’ Status Still in Doubt Despite GBC Officer’s Opinion

Published on: 14 Apr, 2022
Updated on: 15 Apr, 2022

By David Reading

Five months after it was first raised, the question of whether two Ash parish councillors who moved to Wiltshire in 2020 should be considered disqualified remains unanswered, despite the stated opinion of the Guildford Borough Council monitoring officer, a lawyer, saying they should stand down.

The matter was raised again by resident Carl Cookson in light of the fact that since they moved away, Cllrs Tony and Helen Gorham have not attended a single parish council meeting in person. Their only attendance has been at committee meetings that were held online. This was permitted during the pandemic, but in the spring of 2021 a High Court ruling meant that attendance online would no longer count.

Extract from the High Court ruling, handed down on April 28, that most councils have interpreted to mean physical attendance by councillors is required.

The council has maintained that the couple’s virtual attendance at committee meetings entitles them to remain members.

See also: Who Can Say If Parish Absentees Are Still Qualified Councillors?

But on April 1 this year, Mr Cookson emailed the council expressing “concern and displeasure around the continued absence of Councillors Helen Gorham and Tony Gorham from public meetings.”

In response, the parish clerk revealed for the first time that he was relying on “verbal advice” given in April 2021.

A subsequent email from Mr Cookson was copied to the GBC monitoring officer, who wrote to the parish council on April 8 declaring that they had been wrongly advised. If Mr and Mrs Gorham had not physically attended a parish council meeting since May 6, 2021, and the parish council had not granted a dispensation, then both councillors were automatically disqualified six months from their last attendance.

Cllr Nigel Manning

At Monday’s parish council meeting (April 11) the chairman, Cllr Nigel Manning, raised the matter of Mr Cookson’s complaint and said he had since spoken with the monitoring officer – who acknowledged that his email to the council represented “an opinion”.

Cllr Manning (Con) told fellow members that at the next meeting in May, they would need to decide whether to accept the monitoring officer’s opinion or pay for further independent legal advice on the Gorhams’ status.

Cllr Carla Morson (Ind) claimed she had not been kept “in the loop” sufficiently over the matter of Mr and Mrs Gorham. She pointed out that the legal advice the council had received in April 2021 was verbal and she had seen no correspondence on that.

Cllr Carla Morson

The meeting became tense when Cllr Morson complained that Conservative Cllr Marsha Moseley gave a sigh of exasperation every time she (Cllr Morson) raised a question. After the meeting continued for a few minutes, Cllr Moseley denied she had been sighing and said she was in a lot of pain.

Some local people have voiced the feeling that the reluctance of Mr and Mrs Gorham to resign may reflect the wish of Cllr Manning to maintain the parish council as a Tory stronghold. Ten members are Conservatives, including Mr and Mrs Gorham, and two stood as Independents – Cllr Morson and Cllr Pat Scott.

The Guildford Dragon has been reporting on the matter ever since Mr and Mrs Gorham moved 60 miles away to the Marlborough area in 2020.

See also: Parish Council Fails to Explain Councillors’ Six-month Absence

At that time, Ash resident Peter Corns made an official complaint because he believed they would not be able to represent the parish effectively from 60 miles away.  But the borough’s legal department found that the two councillors had not breached the parish council’s code of conduct because there was nothing in law to prevent councillors continuing to serve if they moved away.

It was because of the couple’s continued non-attendance record that Mr Cookson raised the matter again early this month.

The members of Ash Parish Council ten of whom are Conservatives.

The couple’s attendance at council meetings wasn’t an issue up until May 7, 2021, as council meetings were permitted to take place online because of Covid restrictions. But then a High Court ruling meant that virtual attendance, online, would no longer count.

The Local Government Act 1972 states that when a council member fails to attend any meeting for six consecutive months from the date of their last attendance, they cease to be a member of the authority, unless the council accepts a reason for the failure to attend before the six months period expires.

For six months, from May 7 to November 7, 2021, according to the parish council website, the two councillors did not attend one council meeting in person.

In December 2021 parish clerk Dennis Wheeler told The Dragon: “Ash Parish Council have been advised that the manner in which they run meetings and the fact that Councillors Helen and Tony Gorham attend virtual meetings is acceptable under Section 85 of the Local Government Act 1972 attendance requirements.”

The day after the recent Ash Parish Council meeting, The Dragon asked GBC’s monitoring officer: If the advice the parish council has received so far amounts to the “opinion” of different experts, then whose job will it be to offer a definitive answer to the question, are Mr and Mrs Gorham entitled to remain as Ash parish councillors, or not?

A reply was received from the leader of GBC, Joss Bigmore (R4GV, Christchurch), who said: “We offer support and guidance to local parish councils, who are a separate legal entity.

“We were asked to provide a view on the previous advice obtained by the parish council from a third party. We understand Ash Parish Council may wish to seek its own independent legal advice before reaching a decision on whether Mr and Mrs Gorham have been disqualified under section 85 of the Local Government Act 1972.”

Asked about the source of the verbal advice the council was relying on, parish clerk Dennis Wheeler today (April 14) added: “The guidance and advice sought by this council was given verbally over the telephone to the chairman [Cllr Manning] by the National Association of Local Councils with no written documentation or [information about] who personally gave the advice.”

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Responses to Five Months Later, Parish Councillors’ Status Still in Doubt Despite GBC Officer’s Opinion

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    April 14, 2022 at 10:10 pm

    Morally they should have resigned the moment they moved away. No ifs no buts.

    Better vacant seats than absent votes.

  2. Jules Cranwell Reply

    April 15, 2022 at 7:13 am

    This all sounds typically murky from Ash Parish Council. No record of the advice given, nor of who gave it?

    Do they expect us to believe this nonsense?

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