The co-option of two new councillors for the town council on Wednesday, October 21 was overshadowed by the “disgusting” decision to prevent the public from hearing their pitches.

Co-option is a process where members can be added to a body, such as the town council, by a vote amongst its current members. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, elections are currently not being held, leading the town council to co-opt new members to fill gaps left by resignations.

Generally, the public are invited to hear the pitches of councillors, but during the meeting, held on Zoom, a vote was taken by councillors to remove the public from the main meeting room and put them into a separate area known as a breakout room.

The vote caused anger amongst those present for the meeting, with one member of the public lodging a formal complaint. Borough Councillor Nick Matthews, meanwhile, said that the decision “goes against everything that councils are meant to stand for.”

He said: “I think it’s a disgrace. I’m genuinely stunned. There’s no justification for that and I think it’s disgusting,” adding that the decision “goes against the whole concept of ethical, moral issues surrounding these people that are publicly elected and should be publicly accountable.

“It really is as simple as that.”

The decision also split town councillors, with Cllr Lauren Banville telling the Advertiser that she “was under the impression that when you stood for a town co-option or any election you had to give a public presentation,” adding: “Apparently not. “

She continued: “The rest of council voted to keep the whole process confidential which meant that the public, being the taxpayer, has not been allowed to have their say on who represents them.”

She said that the vote against public access to the meeting “leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” adding: “I would expect it in parliament but not at my own town council.”

At the time, the council’s deputy clerk, Tor Warburton, said that while the council would have allowed the public to view the pitches in a physical meeting, “there is no way that we can see whether you are communicating with the other candidates whilst you are remote. Therefore, they have voted against the public being present.”

When asked for comment by the Advertiser, Mayor Richard Rowles said that the decision “wasn’t an attempt to hide anything, it was just a procedural thing as we’ve never done it on Zoom before.”

He said that one of the candidates for the town council, Barbara Carpenter, was unable to get onto Zoom, so that she had to be brought in by the deputy clerk’s phone. “I think because Tor had to be in the breakout room she couldn’t be in the other room as well. We had a vote which was in private on whether we had the public in the room or not and the councillors voted to not have the public in the room. It’s a bit different to how it’s been before but we’ve never had to do a co-option on Zoom before. We just had to deal with it really.”

He added that provided candidates agree, recordings of their pitches would be uploaded onto the council’s website.

Following the pitches, Jason Sangster and Nicholas Asamoah were chosen to become new town councillors, receiving seven and six votes respectively. They will join the council in due course.