Fringe Box



Parish Council to Seek Further Legal Advice on Absentee Councillors

Published on: 11 May, 2022
Updated on: 12 May, 2022

Ash Parish Council meeting May 9, 2022. Chair Nigel Manning in the bow tie.

By David Reading

Ash Parish Council has rejected calls for two of its members to be removed from office immediately, despite the fact that they have not attended, in person, any council meeting since they moved 60 miles away to Wiltshire in 2020.

Helen and Tony Gorham are still serving as Ash parish councillors despite not attending, in person, any meeting since 2020.

Instead, the council voted on Monday (May 9) to pay for legal advice to clarify the status of the two council members, Cllr Tony Gorham (Con, Ash Wharf) and Cllr Helen Gorham (Con, Ash Vale).

The decision came despite an impassioned speech from Cllr Carla Morson (Ind, Ash South) telling members that it was in the interests of democracy that the two councillors should no longer sit on the council and it was “morally and ethically” unsound for them to do so.

Cllr Morson’s speech was applauded by members of the public who had turned up at the unusually well-attended meeting to voice their disquiet about the issue.

Since they moved away in 2020, the two councillors 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 at online council meetings would no longer count.

The chairman, Cllr Nigel Manning (Con, Ash Vale), has relied on verbal advice he received over the phone in April 2021 from the National Association of Local Councils (NALC).

The advice he received was that the couple’s online attendance at council committee meetings entitled them to remain as councillors because parish councils were not “principal councils”.

Despite this, all 17 of Guildford’s 22 parish councils (other than Ash) who responded to our enquiries have said that they do operate the normal attendance rule requiring at least one physical attendance in any six-month period.

In April this year, Guildford Borough Council’s monitoring officer, with over 20 years experience of local council legislation, told Cllr Manning in an email that the parish council 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 special dispensation, then both councillors were automatically disqualified six months from their last attendance.

But Cllr Manning said this was only an “opinion” and on that basis, he had placed it on the council’s agenda for a full debate.

Cllrs Pat Scott and Carla Morson

Only the two Independent councillors, Carla Morson and Pat Scott, proposed immediate disqualification of Mr and Mrs Gorham as councillors.

Cllr Morson said: “I cannot morally or ethically go along with us continuing as we are. For well over a year we have not seen the two councillors in our parish.

“You said they are contactable. The telephone number shown on the parish council website is actually the Ash Parish Council office number.

“We are here to represent the community and at the moment the community is not happy that we have two absentee councillors. People are not seeing that the Gorhams are actually doing anything.”

She added: “I agree that a by-election will cost money but at the end of the day, I believe in democracy.”

She pointed out that no one had confirmed the advice received by NALC. “It was all verbal, so we have nothing to give anybody that can give confidence in what we are doing. So if we do not vote to disqualify the Gorhams this evening then we will be in the wrong and not representing our community in the way we should.”

Defending Mr and Mrs Gorham, Cllr Manning said: “Tony and Helen did live in the village for a long time. Tony received the OBE for work he did in the community. They both know the area very well and are still actively involved in dealing with agenda items.”

He insisted that even though the Gorhams did not attend meetings in person, they work for the parish behind the scenes. He said any council member could provide input into what was debated, not simply members of the various committees. Both members cared about Ash and wanted to continue as councillors.

The unusually full public gallery.

Serious concerns on the issue had already been expressed during the public question time.

An email from a resident was read out by the parish clerk, Dennis Wheeler. It said:  “Even to consider using our taxpayers’ money to seek further advice is an insult to our community and is not acceptable practice.”

From the public gallery, Ash resident Kate Foster asked: “Please can the comments of the monitoring officer be shared with the meeting so we can be told what that opinion was?”

Carl Cookson, the resident who initiated the complaint in April about the Gorhams’ continued presence on the council, read out the email, which had been copied to him: “If Cllrs Helen and Tony Gorham have not physically attended a meeting of the parish council since 6 May 2021 and the parish council did not grant a dispensation, then both councillors were automatically disqualified six months from their last attendance.”

Later Cllr Manning, breaking from usual protocol, addressed Mr Cookson in the public gallery directly, accusing him of “looking very pleased” when the chairman had mentioned the options he had identified for the council. Mr Cookson replied that it was not happiness but horror.

Another Ash resident in the gallery, Fiona White, a Guildford borough and Surrey county councillor, asked every member of the council to consider whether it was an appropriate use of public funds to challenge the monitoring officer’s advice given that it was the officer’s role to give such advice in legal matters.

But Cllr Manning repeated that the advice was “just an opinion”.

Fiona White then asked if Cllr Manning would publish the initial advice he received in April 2021.

Cllr Manning repeated that it had only been verbal advice. “There didn’t seem to be a need to go for a formal written opinion because there didn’t seem to be a problem,” he said. “Obviously there’s a problem now and that’s why we have to decide which way we are going to go.”

Addressing the point that the public did not have access to the Gorhams’ telephone numbers, Cllr Manning replied that people could contact them through the parish office, which was “a filter system”.

“The reason they don’t make their phone number public is that they have been hounded by certain members of the community and press,” he said.

Cllr Manning provided council members with three options on which to vote:

  1. Accept the monitoring officer’s “personal opinion” of April 2022 and disqualify Tony and Helen Gorham as councillors. He said this would potentially result in two by-elections, which would incur a cost.
  2. Seek legal advice. He said the cost of this was unknown.
  3. Continue as at present – with the Gorhams remaining as councillors. He said this would leave open the possibility of a legal challenge if anyone would wish to do it.

Two voted for disqualification, three for seeking further legal advice, two for continuing as present and one abstained.

Cllr Manning refused a request from Cllr Morson for a recorded vote but from the restricted view of the press desk the councillors appeared to vote:

Option one: Cllrs Morson and Scott;

Option two: Cllrs Randall, Gomm and Kearse;

Option three: Cllrs Tonks and Cole;

Abstained: Cllr Manning (chair).

Ash resident Mike Jacobs, a retired Justice of the Peace, who attended the meeting, said afterwards: “So this was democracy in action? It seems the council was afraid to make a decision. I believe the two councillors should be kicked off.”

Kate Foster said: “I am very disappointed but not particularly surprised that the council has voted to spend an unspecified amount of taxpayers’ money on seeking legal advice. A clear opinion had already been given by Guildford Borough Council’s Monitoring Officer. Chairman Nigel Manning seemed very concerned about the cost incurred in holding a by-election but much less so about the cost of obtaining legal advice.

“It does not seem feasible to me that these two councillors can properly represent the residents of Ash from miles away when they do not attend council meetings or sit on any of the sub-committees. If they truly have the best interests of local residents at heart, they should resign their seats forthwith.”

Carl Cookson said: “Obviously I am disappointed. The clerk and chair have ignored the repeated opinions from learned professionals and are basing their dithering around a non documented verbal discussion over a year ago. Further, they are not prepared to repeat that discussion with the NALC, but are emboldened to waste our parishioners’ money to drag out this circus until next year’s elections.

“The Gorhams did not bother to represent themselves at the meeting and no reason for absence was given. They were not elected for any sub-committees, so the chair’s assumption that they will continue to interact with our parish, from Wiltshire, is nonsense.”

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Responses to Parish Council to Seek Further Legal Advice on Absentee Councillors

  1. Lisa Wright Reply

    May 11, 2022 at 4:24 pm

    Perhaps those councillors that chose to employ legal advice will pay the cost to reimburse the parish council funds if it’s found that the two councillors should be dismissed under the six-month rule?

  2. Daniel Hill Reply

    May 11, 2022 at 6:22 pm

    This is why our political system is broken. What planet is Cllr Manning on that he thinks it’s ok to ignore residents, ignore the GBC monitoring officer and waste taxpayers’ money on legal advice nobody wants?

    All this in the hope he can save two councillors, that don’t attend meetings in person, don’t get involved with local issues, who you can’t contact on the phone and who now live in Wiltshire.

    Someone at GBC needs to step in and get control of this madness.

    Editor’s comment: GBC has no power to “step in”. Each parish council is autonomous but monitoring officers at the relevant principal council do have a role in handling complaints against parish councillors.

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