Councillors review ‘bizarre’ rule which bars public from taking part in online meetings

Councillors in Fife have called for a bizarre rule banning members of the public from taking part in virtual meetings to be reviewed.

By Craig Smith, Local Democracy Reporting Service
Thursday, 27th January 2022, 6:10 am

Elected members of the north east Fife area committee unanimously backed a motion asking for Fife Council to look again at its Standing Orders after it emerged members of the public are prohibited from attending remote meetings to ask questions.

The local authority has been holding committee meetings via Microsoft Teams throughout the pandemic, and that arrangement is set to continue for some time to come.

While a member of the public could physically attend and address a council meeting in person pre-COVID, the council’s own set of written rules do not make such provision for remote meetings.

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Gina Logan MBE (Pic: George McLuskie)

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The unusual situation came to light after the north east Fife committee considered a public question in November from Gina Logan MBE, former Scottish Commonwealth Games swim team manager, which asked why opening hours of local leisure facilities were restricted.

Councillors asked her and Emma Walker, chief executive of Fife Sports and Leisure Trust, to attend their next virtual meeting to discuss the issue further.

But that request did not fall within the council’s Standing Orders - which effectively make up the local authority’s rulebook.

East Sands Leisure Centre, St Andrews - concerns over its opening hours sparked the issue

Liberal Democrat councillor Tim Brett expressed his disappointment and surprise at the outcome - and his motion to committee calling on the council to review its Standing Orders found the support of his colleagues.

He said: "It just seems wrong that we’re not able to have that (the public attending remote meetings to ask a question).”

Ms Logan had submitted a public question to the November meeting - read out on her behalf - asking councillors to find out why current operating hours at Cupar Sports Centre and East Sands Leisure Centre in St Andrews were curtailed.

An e-mail response from Ms Walker said the trust was “striving to find the right balance” in terms of opening hours.

Councillors now intend to attend a separate meeting with the East Fife Sports Council and Ms Logan to which Ms Walker will be invited.

Added Mr Brett: “It is the view of Ms Logan and the East Fife Sports Council that we are not getting the same level of access in north east Fife as the other sports centres.

“I’m generally in support of arms length organisations but it leads me to ask: how accountable are they? To what extent does Fife Sports and Leisure Trust take into account the views of local communities when making decisions?

“I hope that a number of us will be able to meet with representatives of the Trust in order to go into some detail. We should be standing up for our local communities - there is a view we’re not getting a fair crack of the whip.”

According to the Standing Orders for in-person committee meetings, members of the public may be allowed to appear before any area committee and make a statement or ask a question.

However, where a remote meeting is being held, the rules state there will be "no public attendance possible", but written questions or statements may be submitted in advance.

Councillors now intend to attend a separate meeting with the East Fife Sports Council and Ms Logan to which Ms Walker will be invited.

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