More than 50 villagers turned up to the annual parish meeting to hear why Horrabridge Parish Council has been reduced to five members and to ask questions about what happens next.

The gathering on Tuesday night (May 29, 2018) was told that …

* Other parish councils might easily find they have put themselves in the same position and West Devon, the supervising authority, has issued a general warning about the importance of strict procedure in the co-opting of councillors.

* If 10 villagers demand it in a signed petition before June 14, there will have to be an election and candidates will be invited. But it would all be about filling the vacant places. Remaining councillors would not have to stand, at least before next year. If the council is left alone to fix itself, some of the four disqualified councillors might volunteer to be co-opted again. But new volunteers will be needed, because at least one of the suspended four has resigned for good and there were vacancies anyway. Mike Huda, landlord of the London Inn, is the first name publicly put forward.

* Parish council opposition to the proposed Vodafone mast on the main road corner – being installed as this is published – got nowhere because Dartmoor National Park Authority missed a deadline and the plan went through by default. DNPA does not appear to dispute this version of events but is not able to offer any remedy.

The meeting opened with an upbeat report from parish chairman Paul Beard, who said the council had got a lot of work done and he regretted losing people who had done their best.

Deputy chairman Steve Roche said minor questions raised by the auditors over the 2016-17 accounts had been answered and all accounts due to date were now all approved and ready to sign off.

However, after that investigation, it seems a member of the public asked West Devon to check on the procedure the council has used for co-option for many years. It turned out that since the last formal election in 2015, they had several times missed out a step involving formal publication of a Notice Of Vacancy (including one on pink paper )before co-opting replacement councillors. The clerk, Andrea Taylor, had never been told about it and West Devon is now checking with other parish clerks who might never have seen the last advice on the subject.

Behind the scenes since the last public meeting, Mrs Taylor has given notice and four councillors, Eric Hemsil, Paul Mouncher, Andrew Collins and Adam Minns, have been disqualified. Only nine of the council’s 12 seats were filled anyway, so there are now five councillors and seven empty chairs to share around committees which need at least four councillors in each to hold legal meetings.

The speed of events meant the remaining councillors came to Tuesday’s meeting still in a state of some confusion themselves. But the audience included a former West Devon electoral officer, Carisa Allen, wife of local decorator Tim, and West Devon councillors David Cloke and Diana Moyse, who helped to clarify what might happen after June 14 – amounting to either a pressed election, through petition to the returning officer in Tavistock, or general assent, after June 14, to the council rebuilding itself through co-option, under the guidance of West Devon officers.

Cllr Beard said they had been advised there was no need to revisit decisions made with disqualified councillors – such as the commitment of funds from the Walkham Meadows deal. The council always had a legal core.

He said the council had learned hard lessons and could piece itself back together.

David Cloke pointed out that an election would cost the village at least £3,000 and there would have to be one next year anyway.

The five councillors left holding the fort were just enough to hold the council’s annual meeting, after the parish reports on Tuesday night, and to re-elect Cllr Beard as chairman and Cllr Roche as vice-chairman. Also still in previous posts are Doreen Keane, Andy Moorhead and Tracey Lear. Mike Huda of The London attended the meeting to say he was willing to join them as a co-opted member.

Cllr Moorhead said anybody could put their name forward for co-option but it was up to the council to decide who was suitable. He would like to see people come forward saying they were prepared to stand for election or to be co-opted, as necessary.

Joe Sweetinburgh, the council’s chief critic on Facebook, did not attend. A number of people expressed admiration for the council and the meeting was a calm one.

The council meets again June 12. The Horrabridge Times, now a Friday publication, will be back on June 8.

Report by Chris Benfield

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