Thursday, September 05, 2019

Talking about a constitution...

Never let it be said that this blog is not focussed on the big issues, such as constitutional reform. Yet, funnily enough, having written about the importance of our unwritten conventions, this evening I found myself debating a new constitution for our county umbrella group, the Suffolk Association of Local Councils.

Apparently, the current version has developed over many years and almost as many iterations, finally becoming so overloaded that it was felt easier to just start again. And, indeed, it is a far more streamlined, accessible document. But, as is often the case, I felt that it could be better.

This evening was billed as being one of the three means by which members could make their opinions and suggestions known and, after the Chief Executive had introduced the document, I had intended to raise two issues of immediate concern. It was perhaps then unfortunate that the debate segued almost seamlessly into a discussion of issues relating to planning enforcement, which the chair of the meeting not unreasonably ran with, as it was clearly the will of the meeting to raise mutual concerns.

I let the debate blow itself out, before the Chair attempted to move on to next business. Politely, I noted that the accompanying document to the draft constitution stated quite clearly that the meeting was an opportunity to raise issues of concern or to seek clarification, and that I wanted to do just that.

There was a little uneasy shuffling, but I felt that I needed to stand my ground. So I did.

I wanted to question why the constitution as drafted appeared to make no reference to issues of diversity and equality, noting my previously stated concerns about the lack of gender balance amongst the Honorary Vice Presidents three years or so ago (they were all male). Where was the commitment not to allow such things to happen again? What message did the apparent lack of interest send out to women and other under represented groups?

In fairness, both the Chair and the Chief Executive acknowledged that SALC needed to do better in this area, and promised that my concerns would be conveyed to the Board (I now intend to be at the AGM to follow that up).

There was also a proposal to remove term limits for officers. Funnily enough, I might have let that slide a few years ago, but it is clear that best practice for public bodies is to have term limits, and I have been convinced by that argument. Long-established leaders in most groups tend to become ossified, and hard to shift, and I noted that SALC appeared to be heading away from acknowledged best practice.

The logic was, apparently, that people had simply ended up rotating through the Board positions, which perhaps indicates a closed-shop mentality amongst some of them, conscious or subconscious. Or, in other words, “we’re not very good at developing new leaders, so we’ll give up trying”.

Finally, whilst I had the floor, I raised the issue of holding an AGM during a workday. Yes, I can see the attraction, but it does send a subliminal message to non-retired Parish Councillors that they aren’t perhaps as important as retired ones, who possibly have more time on their hands.

So, a small blow for diversity, and a marker to the SALC Board that somebody is watching them. Transparency, as one of my fellow councillors noted, is a good thing, and it tends to lead to better decision making.

Here’s hoping, eh?

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