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From a ‘faux pas’ to a dress complaint - how video calls have changed council meetings

PUBLISHED: 11:00 14 November 2020

Nigel Pearce was criticised for appearing to be asleep during a meeting of North Norfolk District Council. Photo: YouTube

Nigel Pearce was criticised for appearing to be asleep during a meeting of North Norfolk District Council. Photo: YouTube

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During the coronavirus pandemic, most of us have had to get to grips with virtual calls.

During lockdown Zoom became one of the only ways to keep in touch with colleagues, friends and family. Picture: GettyImagesDuring lockdown Zoom became one of the only ways to keep in touch with colleagues, friends and family. Picture: GettyImages

We’ve entered a new reality, where making sure our microphone is on mute or video switched on is as important as arriving on time.

And it’s not just us having difficulty. Councillors across Norfolk have had to get used to the new normal while being watched by the public - and it hasn’t always gone smoothly.

1. Virtual council meeting held to decide not to hold virtual council meetings

Green councillor for Saham Toney Timothy Birty.  Pic: Green Party.Green councillor for Saham Toney Timothy Birty. Pic: Green Party.

In April, a virtual meeting of Norwich City Council’s planning committee was held – to decide not to hold virtual planning committees during the coronavirus pandemic.

Seems like it could have been done over email, right?

Well, actually, no. The council’s committee met over Zoom to discuss how planning applications will be dealt with during the outbreak.

With social distancing in place, physical meetings are not possible, but the government has made clear planning decisions should be made.

The committee decided decisions would be made by officers using delegated powers, while major decisions were decided by the chairman Keith Driver or vice chairman Marion Maxwell.

Norwich City Council's planning committee met using Zoom. Pic: Dan GrimmerNorwich City Council's planning committee met using Zoom. Pic: Dan Grimmer

2. Council chairman told the public to “suck it up and live with” a contract blunder

The chairman of Brandon Town Council Phil Wittam told onlookers at a virtual meeting that the council had “made a mess” of a consultancy contract earlier this month.

The debate came as Mr Wittam answered questions from the public, where a dispute was revealed about a contract with the health and safety consultancy Ellis Whittam.

The meeting heard that, in 2019, a five-year contract was signed with the company, which would cost the council around £15,000, but was only revealed to councillors in June of this year.

After back-and-forth between councillors and members of the public on the issue, Mr Wittam told them to “suck it up and live with it”.

“I will shoot anybody right between the eyes in three years’ time if they suggest we signed up with Ellis Whittam for a third period of five years,” he said.

Mr Wittam also refused to answer any more questions from another former town councillor, Mark Skinner, who was told at the start of the meeting to “go back and do your homework”.

Mr Skinner then called for the resignation of the chairman, saying there was “no confidence” in him.

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3. Councillor accused of falling asleep during meeting

Nigel Pearce, a Conservative member of North Norfolk District Council, was accused of being “fast asleep” in a scrutiny meeting held on Wednesday, November 11.

During the meeting, the Liberal Democrat councillor Nigel Lloyd described Mr Pearce’s apparent lack of attention as “inappropriate”.

But he denied the claim he was asleep and said he was listening in as an observer while working.

During a discussion on the new Serco waste contract, Mr Pearce appeared to have his eyes closed.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Pearce said he was not asleep and added: “I was an observer. I am not a member of the committee. I was working at the same time.

“I was fully aware of what was going on and I was just about to ask a question. The fact I was looking away from the screen may have been where he got the wrong conception from.”

4. An insulting ‘faux pas’

Nigel Pearce was forced to apologise for swearing in a virtual council meeting.

In an outburst, the councillor said ‘you b****’ after a fellow party member voted in a virtual planning meeting on August 20.

Days after the meeting, Mr Pearce announced he quit the Liberal Democrat party to return to the Conservative group.

Mr Pearce said he apologised at 10am the morning after the incident and his leaving the party was not linked to the outburst.

“I apologised at 10am the next morning and my apologies were accepted. I have no bad feelings towards the party, it was a faux pas,” he said.

5. Formal complaint over ‘not being appropriately dressed’ on Zoom call

Timothy Birt, Green councillor for Saham Toney, has accused Breckland Council’s scrutiny committee of “systematically failing” after he received a formal complaint about his dress and “corporate background” on Zoom.

At a full council meeting on the video-conferencing platform on Thursday, September 24, Mr Birt said there were “major problems with the process” and called on the council leader to commit to an urgent external review, following a formal complaint he said had been made about him by the council chairman, Lynda Turner.

He said: “Looking at my screen I see a few extra check shirts from my opposition colleagues - that is relevant, because the chairman of this council raised a formal complaint against me including ‘not being appropriately dressed’ and not using a ‘corporate background’ during Zoom.”

Council leader Sam Chapman-Allen said he would not comment on the complaints against Mr Birt.

He added: “The course of action he needs to raise is with the monitoring officer directly.”


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