Council’s last minute cliffhanger

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A notice of co-option was issued on Wednesday June 3 by Rye Town Clerk Richard Farhall to fill the casual vacancy caused by Sam Souster resigning. Councillors had heard at last week’s council meeting (May 26) that some people were planning to call for a by-election. No names were mentioned though. However others might also have been planning to do so despite the cost, whom councillors did not know about.

On June 1, with just a day to go before the deadline for calling an election, Farhall told the newly elected council that there would probably not need to be a by-election, which would have potentially cost every man, woman and child in the town at least £1 a head, if not more. “I have been informed that those thinking of calling for an election have changed their mind now that they have had sight of our co-option procedure”, he said. The procedure was introduced in 2013 the last time a co-option was necessary – after a very long period without any co-options.

However the notice of co-option could not be issued until the deadline was passed, and Rother District Council had confirmed that there was no call for a by-election. The closing date for applications to be considered for co-option is Wednesday June 24 and further information can be obtained from Farhall or by visiting the council’s website.

A by-election had been possible, if ten electors called for one, to fill the casual vacancy caused by the resignation of Cllr Sam Souster shortly after losing his district council seat in the previous election early last month. Rother District Council officials are now saying a by-election could have cost at least £4,000, if it had happened, although the Town Clerk’s earlier estimate was around £5,000. Cllr Mike Boyd, having raised concerns about a possible by-election at the council meeting last week, May 26, welcomed the news as “the most sensible and cost-effective way of filling it (the vacancy) must surely be by co-option”.

Councillor Boyd was co-opted in 2013 after “Lord Ampthill resigns over Maggie flag row”, as the Rye Observer reported. Following the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher government buildings were asked to fly flags at half mast. Rye Town decided otherwise, Lord Ampthill resigned, seven candidates were considered, and Boyd was co-opted in June 2013.

The council’s two page 19 point “Co-option procedure” sets out how potential candidates should apply, what then happens, and how councillors will vote. The council decided last week that, if the vacancy was to be filled by co-option, this would happen on Monday July 6 after the Planning Committee meeting. The vacancy has now been advertised and possible applicants have until June 24 to apply. Candidates will need to check with the Town Clerk that they are eligible before officially applying, and can then submit a supporting statement of up to 750 words.

This statement should cover why they want to be on the council, past experience of council/community work, skills and knowledge they could bring to the council, interests and work history – paid or unpaid. Candidates will be invited to speak for up to three minutes at the selection meeting and will be asked up to three questions – if the chairman believes the questions to be relevant, reasonable or fair. Voting will then be by ballot, with the one with the least votes struck off, until a candidate has an absolute majority ie more votes than the total number of votes for the remaining candidates. And the entire procedure will be held in public.

At any time the meeting’s chairman may use a casting vote to break a deadlock but, if a candidate is unwilling, the situation shall be determined by the toss of a coin, conducted by the Town Clerk. Contributions or questions from members of the public other than the candidates shall not be permitted.

Candidates are qualified to be co-opted if “they are a British, qualifying Commonwealth, Irish or European Union citizen” and 18 or over on the day they are co-opted. They also must be on the electoral register or in the previous 12 months have owned or tenanted land or premises in Rye, or had Rye as their principal place of work, or have resided in Rye Parish or within three miles of it. However you can not apply if you work for the council, are subject to a bankruptcy order, or been imprisoned for not less than three months (whether suspended or not) within the last five years, or are disqualified under any enactment relating to corrupt or illegal practices. And, if you are in any doubt, ask the Town Clerk.

Former Town Councillor Mary Smith comments in our Opinion page on both the co-option procedure and what the Town Council should be doing, given its limited powers and the unlikely situation that local government will be re-organised in the near future.

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