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Public Anger Erupts Over the Two Absentee Ash Councillors

Published on: 13 Sep, 2022
Updated on: 13 Sep, 2022

The two absent Ash parish councillors, Helen and Tony Gorham

By David Reading

The saga of the two absent Ash parish councillors came to a head on Monday evening when the full parish council faced searing criticism from members of the public and from its two Independent members.

The mainly Conservative council has been embroiled in controversy since the two councillors, Helen and Tony Gorham, left the area to live in Marlborough, Wiltshire, in 2020.

Since then, they have not attended a single parish council meeting in person. Their only attendance has been at committee meetings held online. This was permitted during the pandemic, but a High Court ruling in the spring of 2021 meant that attendance at online council meetings would no longer count.

Cllr Nigel Manning

The council, led by its chairman Cllr Nigel Manning, has steadfastly refused to accept that the two councillors should resign. Some residents believe it is because he wishes to avoid the risk of his party losing more seats at by-elections.

Despite hearing legal advice that the couple’s membership was unlawful, the council wasn’t convinced and voted in May to pay for a barrister to clarify the position. The barrister was told an opinion was needed by the end of August.

But at Monday’s meeting, it was revealed that the barrister’s opinion had not been received, leading to anger and frustration among the residents who attended. They were furious that the matter had been allowed to drag on, with the two councillors remaining in post. The barrister’s fee of £2,400 for the advice has already been paid.

See also: The Case of the Absent Ash Councillors Descends into Farce

During public discussion time, resident Carl Cookson asked: “Does the council believe there should be a deadline and that the evidence of the other legal sources should then be considered?”

He added: “I don’t understand why you are still dithering when you have received two professional opinions from people in senior positions. This is an embarrassment to the whole parish.”

Those two opinions were:

  • Guildford Borough Council’s monitoring officer told Cllr Manning in an email in April that 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.
  • Anne Bott, chair of the Surrey Association of Local Councils (SALC), said in response to an email from Cllr John Tonks, the parish council’s deputy chair: “A councillor will  be disqualified if within six consecutive months they have not attended in person a formal Meeting of the Council, Committees, sub-committees or any approved business of the Council, unless within the six months they have submitted apologies for absence WITH REASON which has been approved by the Council etc.”

Cllr John Tonks

But during Monday’s meeting Cllr Tonks – standing in for an absent Cllr Manning – insisted that the matter was still unresolved and without the barrister’s report, there was nothing to be discussed.

However, Independent councillor Carla Morson insisted there was plenty to discuss, saying that the legal advice received so far was “unequivocal” – and the Gorhams should be disqualified from membership of the council.

In an impassioned speech, she said: “They have not attended a face-to-face meeting in over a year. Are we really content that this is right and correct for our residents? Morally and ethically what the Gorhams are doing is wrong.”

She added: “Our prayer at the beginning of the council said we want to represent our community to the best of our effort. We are not doing that. By not making a decision we are making the situation worse.”

And she raised the question: Because there is plenty of evidence the Gorhams should be disqualified, is the council operating illegally?

Cllr Carla Morson

Cllr Morson said that in the absence of the barrister’s advice, the council should “bite the bullet” and make a decision now about the status of the Gorhams – a view supported by fellow Independent Pat Scott.

But they were told this was not possible because such a decision was not on the agenda. In response, Cllr Morson said there was a solution to this: the council could call an extraordinary meeting and resolve the matter within 14 days.

Throughout the meeting, Cllr Tonks appeared to have only one argument against the barrage of criticism levelled at the council. The council can’t do anything, he said, until the barrister’s opinion arrives.

He said: “We have chased this up, but they haven’t completed it yet. Obviously, we’re not their only customer. We have done all we can. They have indicated that they will get back to us as soon as possible.”

In his opinion, despite the advice received, this was all a grey area and a correct interpretation of the law was unclear. “We must wait for the barrister’s opinion,” he repeated.

Cllr Morson was also perplexed why she and other members had been kept uninformed about the email exchange between Cllr Tonks and Anne Bott, chair at SALC – in which Ms Bott gave her opinion that the Gorhams’ continued presence on the council was illegal.

These emails came to light following a Freedom of Information request from resident Carl Cookson.

Cllr Morson said: “There should have been discussion on this. The last email was date Aug 11. I have heard nothing until the last couple of days about those emails. Why are all of us – parish councillors representing the community – why is it not discussed with us when these things arise?”

Cllr Tonks didn’t share the emails with members until after they were reported in the Guildford Dragon.

He said: “We were awaiting legal advice and I felt there was no urgency in sharing those emails.”

As Cllr Tonks continued to insist that no decision could be made, and the council had to await the barrister’s response, anger and frustration got the better of the members of the public present but they were told firmly that they were not permitted to interrupt.

Disregarding the direction, Mr Cookson declared: “You should set a deadline for an outcome to be decided. That should be the next council session. You should then have everything in your possession to make a decision. Rather than discuss it – do it!”

Cllrs Helen and Tony Gorham have been invited to comment.

 

 

 

 

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