Concern over proposed standing order changes

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Proposed amendments to Aberdeenshire Council’s standing orders were discussed at the last meeting of the Stonehaven and District Community Council.

The current standing orders allow councillors, at any ordinary meeting of the full council, to put ask a question at the meeting providing it is “concerning any relevant or competent matter” if they provide the question two weeks before the meeting. These questions and responses are then included in the meetings papers.

The facility for formal questions by councillors thus allows any councillor to get a matter onto the agenda for a full council meeting and any supplementary question and answer, included in the public record of the meeting.

The proposed changes to the standing orders impose a requirement on a councillor wanting to ask a formal question to demonstrate that ‘all reasonable steps to have the question answered through available normal channels have been taken’. The right to a supplementary question for clarification is proposed to be removed.

At the meeting of the SDCC Councillor Peter Bellarby explained that the move was to ensure that current guidelines already in place are carried out. Some members of the community Council were concerned however. One Community Councillor said the move would mean Councillors were “muzzled”.

Councillor Peter Bellarby said: “This is not muzzling people. The mechanism is still there.”

Community Councillors were also concerned that if Councillors get answers to questions out-with the meetings that the public would not be informed of the decision. However Councillor Wendy Agnew explained that as a Councillor she would always contact residents who ask a question to tell them the outcome and that any important matters she would take to the press. However some Community Councillors were still concerned.

Community Councillor Rachel Shanks said: “The move to restrict councillors’ right to ask formal questions at full council is an erosion of public accountability at Aberdeenshire Council. If the rule changes go ahead, the Council’s chief executive could, if they so wished, block or delay unwelcome questions at full council by deciding the question could have been put by another means or at a different time or place. A council committee chair should be prepared to answer questions from other councillors in public.”