Castlereagh Borough Council is one of many councils in Northern Ireland that still seems to expect members of the public to turn up in person at Council headquarters to find out about council business and decisions. Of course, they also offer a paid-for photocopying and postage alternative.
But website? No.
- Information will be published on-line and free of charge where possible
It goes on to say:
In exceptional circumstances some information may be available only by viewing in person. Where this manner is specified, contact details will be provided. An appointment to view the information will be arranged within a reasonable timescale.
But access to a council isn’t just about seeing what’s happened after the event.
Can Castlereagh ratepayers find out online when the council holds meetings and whether they are open to the public?
There are two relevant mentions on the website. The Council page suggests
“The Council meets regularly in the Council Chamber and members of the public and the press are welcome to attend monthly council meetings and so can view democracy in action”
but doesn’t mention any dates or times. There is another line on the Committees pages to say that
“All decisions taken at Committee are ratified at the Full Council Meeting, which is held on the fourth Thursday of every month”
but while giving an indication of the date still doesn’t mention the time or volunteer a phone number or email address to find out (without having to search elsewhere on the website).
The actual answer - not obtained through their website! - is that members of the public (and press) are not welcome at any of the council committee meetings: they are all held in committee (ie, in private). The main council meeting is open to the public, and generally starts at 7pm in the Council headquarters on the fourth Thursday of every month.
Castlereagh Borough Council have been a topic on Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme two days in a row. Yesterday Wendy Austin spoke to Alliance councillor Alderman Geraldine Rice, and today (starts 0:26:37 in) she moved onto the Acting Chief Executive Edwin Campbell. (Since the last Chief Executive left in March 2009, the position rotates around a number of senior council officers (directors) - though the webpage explaining who is in the hot seat hasn’t been updated for six month!)
All a far cry from Belfast SDLP Councillor Niall Kelly’s proposal in December that Belfast City Council stream all their meetings online!
But even more fundamentally, can Castlereagh ratepayers find out online how to contact their local councillor?
The council’s adopted Definition Document explains the minimum information that should be published:
Currently elected councillors’ information and contact details
Any personal information should be published only with consent. The essentials are names, positions on the council and how they can be contacted.
So how should it be published? Castlereagh Borough Council’s Publication Scheme says:
Where it is within the capability of a public authority, information will be provided on a website. Where it is impracticable to make information available on a website or when an individual does not wish to access the information by the website, a public authority will indicate how information can be obtained by other means and provide it by those means.
Well, there is a council website. And it has a placeholder on each councillor’s page for contact information (I’ve used the current Castlereagh Mayor as an illustration above - but it’s the same for other councillors). So did each individual councillor declare that they don’t want their information on the website? Councillors not wanting to be contactable?
A non-contactable politician sounds like an oxymoron!
Update - contact information is recorded against three of the 23 councillors. Councillors Michael Henderson and Jack Beattie can be contacted by email; Councillor Sara Duncan offers a mobile phone number as well as email. Twenty offer no contact details.
If the Executive survives and the NI Assembly continues to pass legislation … and if the Reform of Public Administration (RPA) is introduced … and if the Castlereagh and Lisburn City councils can agree on a new name for the merged public body (see section 3.1.1) ... I suspect that Castlereagh and other councils will still manage to make vast improvements in their accessibility and transparency over the coming months.
It only took an interval of four and a half years for Magherafelt District Council to move from the decision to publish online in March 2005 to actually uploading their first minutes in the autumn of 2009!