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The Continuing Saga of the Absentee Parish Councillors: Chairman Calls a Special Meeting

Published on: 24 Nov, 2022
Updated on: 27 Nov, 2022

The two physically absent Ash parish councillors Helen and Tony Gorham

By David Reading

Ash Parish Council is to hold a special meeting on Tuesday, November 29, to discuss an issue that has made it a laughing stock in the eyes of some residents – the contentious matter of a council member who lives 60 miles away.

Cllr Helen Gorham and her husband Tony, also a council member, moved away to Wiltshire in September 2020 but refused to stand down.

See also: Comment – Why the Derisive Laughter Over a Council’s Behaviour Is Understandable

Since then both councillors have attended occasional committee meetings of the council – but never physically, only online.

This was acceptable when Covid provisions were in place allowing online attendance. But those emergency provisions ended in the spring of 2021, and most observers accept that since then councillors have been required to attend physically at least once every six months.

Cllr Nigel Manning

At Ash Parish Council’s recent full meeting, on November 14, chairman Nigel Manning announced that it had come to his attention that council minutes showed that Cllr Helen Gorham had not attended any meeting – whether online or otherwise – for six months since April 2022.

If that is the case, the regulations mean Mrs Gorham must be disqualified from the council.

But the chairman said it was his recollection that Mrs Gorham had attended more recently than April. And so he had asked the clerk, Dennis Wheeler, to investigate what the records showed.

Cllr Manning said: “Dennis has made some investigations and whilst there are no formal records within the offices there is some information suggesting the minutes may be wrong.”

This statement was met with derisive laughter among members of the public present. They were well aware that the matter of “the absentee councillors” – as they have come to be known – has been rumbling on for many months.

Mr and Mrs Gorham were expected to quit when they moved house to Wiltshire in 2020 because, residents asked, how could they function as parish councillors from two counties away? In itself, living 60 miles away is not a legal issue. Local councillors can move away from the area they represent and remain as councillors, so long as they attend at least one council meeting every six months.

But the two failed to attend any meetings physically for more than six months and it was widely accepted that they were disqualified.

Even the monitoring officer at Guildford Borough Council offered the opinion that the two councillors should be disqualified and this was reinforced by a similar view from the chair of the Surrey Association for Local Councils. Every other parish council in the borough complies with the “six-month rule”.

But £2,400 of parish council money was spent on obtaining a further legal opinion, and this offered an alternative view – that the two councillors could remain in place because they had attended meetings online.

However, even that would not help Helen Gorham if she had not attended a council meeting, even online, for more than six months – as was suggested by the minutes. Then came the chairman’s announcement about his own personal recollection – indicating that the minutes could be wrong.

Cllr Manning said: “On that basis I’m going to be calling an extraordinary meeting of the council before the next full council meeting in order that councillors can consider the minutes and what information there is to suggest whether they are correct or not.”

That meeting will take place at 6.30pm on Tuesday, November 29, at the council’s meeting room at the Ash Centre in Ash Hill Road.

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test 5 Responses to The Continuing Saga of the Absentee Parish Councillors: Chairman Calls a Special Meeting

  1. RWL Davies Reply

    November 24, 2022 at 4:46 pm

    Beyond parody.

  2. Jim Allen Reply

    November 24, 2022 at 8:35 pm

    Just what do the Gorhams gain from this behaviour? They seem insensitive to the consequence of their actions. I would strongly suggest that if the chairman’s recollection is devoid of secondary support his position is untenable.

  3. James Wild Reply

    November 24, 2022 at 8:59 pm

    Surely a phone call to the Gorhams to ask them if they have attended in the last six months would sort this out rather than putting the parish through another meeting with Cllr Manning.

  4. S Callanan Reply

    November 25, 2022 at 3:45 pm

    I thought we were all to see the barrister’s opinion obtained at some expense by the parish council. What’s happened to that? Of course we’d also need to see the instructions to fully understand the ins and outs of the response.

    This whole episode makes “the dog ate my homework” sound magisterial.

    Editor’s response: Both the instructions to the barrister and his full response were published on the Ash Parish Council website and can be found here: https://www.ashpcsurrey.gov.uk/ash-parish-council-legal-advice-from-barrister/

  5. Martin Elliott Reply

    November 25, 2022 at 4:21 pm

    If somehow the whole council decide the minutes of the minutes are incorrect, I hope they will disqualify themselves for approving an incorrect set of minutes.

    After all, a cornerstone of quality control is the accuracy of records.

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