An attempt by Thanet council officers to be able to declare the Margate Central ward vacant has again failed despite reports that some 26 councillors received emails saying they could face High Court action if a motion was not agreed.
At an extraordinary meeting of the council on Tuesday (November 6) councillors were asked to agree to authorise the Chief Executive to declare vacancies.
The move follows a failed attempt to approve a motion to declare the Margate Central ward vacant following the disqualification of Cllr Ian Venables at a meeting on October 15.
Thanet council’s legal officer Tim Howes told councillors the authority was “under a legal duty to declare the vacancy,” but councillors refused to back the motion with 27 voting against and just 13 voting in favour, with one abstention.
The rebellion centres around whether Ian Venables was rightly disqualified from his councillor role after taking a post with new homelessness team RISE.
Thanet council says that means he is now indirectly employed by the authority and he has been disqualified under section 80(1)(a) of the Local Government Act 1972 with effect from 1 August 2018.
But there is dissatisfaction amongst councillors with the legal argument over whether Mr Venables had been rightly disqualified and the lack of information regarding legal advice to the council.
Local government rules meant the move to ask full council to approve the vacancy can not be repeated for 6 months. A by-election can also not be called within 6 months of a full election taking place – district councillors are due to go to the polls in May.
At the meeting this week councillors said they had received emails saying the could be taken to the High Court if the motion to allow the Chief Executive to declare the vacancy was not passed.
A report to councillors also stated passing the motion would mean: “This will avoid the artificial situation where council is asked to consider and debate an administrative provision whereas the law requires that the matter be agreed.
“A continued failure to declare a vacancy may lead to the publication of a report under section 5 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 and potential judicial review proceedings.”
Cllr Karen Constantine said: “I believe our democracy is being undermined here. I do not see how an unelected officer can make and implement a unilateral decision to declare a vacancy when that vacancy might have been called in error. And to have the temerity to request elected members to help clean up the mess I think is a disgrace.
I have been told by email that I could be taken to court for my legitimate vote and I think that is quite wrong.”
Thanet Independent Councillors group leader Stuart Piper also referred to the email, saying: “We have a bit of a problem because if we do not delegate the powers this evening those members who voted against the motion on October 15 apparently will be called to court to explain their actions as a result of a report having to be filed by the monitoring officer.”
Cllr Piper said the question was whether the power should be delegated or whether all councillors should have the relevant information and then make the decision.
Cllr Iris Johnston, who said she would vote against the move regardless, said proper procedure was not being followed and the issue should go to the constitutional working party, standards committee and the full council.
She added: “The purpose of a monitoring officer is to ensure lawfulness and fairness, what we have seen recently is anything but fair to the electorate of my ward (Margate Central).
This amendment was thrown together very quickly to scupper us. Giving such strong delegation powers to one officer, that could affect all 56 councillors as we would not know why someone was disqualified and we would not know why a vacancy was declared.”
Council leader Bob Bayford said: “I really don’t understand what all the fuss is about. If there is a disqualification or someone dies or doesn’t attend for six months or resigns then a vacancy is created.
“All that is happening here is that we are being asked to delegate to the Chief Executive the task of declaring that vacancy, not deciding whether there isa vacancy.
“To me it is a simple administrative, legally required action that sensibly just gets carried out automatically.”
The motion failed when the majority of councillors voted against with some Conservative members voting for and a number of UKIP members abstaining.
A Thanet council spokesman said: “”Councillors were not threatened with High Court action in respect of delegations. Any High Court action would be in relation to continued failure to declare a vacancy.”