Democracy questioned as councillors walk-out over iPad video

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COUNCILLORS have been slammed for walking out of a meeting – because a member of the public was filming proceedings.

Members of the Labour-controlled Hetton Town Council walked out of October’s monthly meeting after Kay Rowham started videoing it on her iPad.

Kay Rowham is dismayed about members of Hetton Town Council walking out of last week's meeting because they were lawfully being filmed by Kay. Back from left Kathleen Pearson, Alan Davies and Ann Campbell

Kay Rowham is dismayed about members of Hetton Town Council walking out of last week's meeting because they were lawfully being filmed by Kay. Back from left Kathleen Pearson, Alan Davies and Ann Campbell

The retired IT and telecoms worker took advantage of new Parliamentary legislation, signed by Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles in August, that anyone can record, film or tweet from public meetings of local government bodies.

However, her actions sparked a mass exit and now councillors have been told “democracy cannot live behind closed doors” by a council watchdog.

“I go to most of the meetings and I’ve just got a new iPad,” Mrs Rowham, of Hetton, told the Echo. “When the rules changed, the town clerk advised members of it and I believe they all got copies.

“I did take a paper copy with me just in case, because they are not very public friendly. I go every month and I take notes, just to keep an eye on them.”

Mrs Rowham, who received 25 per cent of votes as a UKIP candidate in the May city council election for Doxford ward, started filming four minutes into the meeting.

She then posted the 12-minute, eight-second clip on video-sharing website YouTube under the name KittyKat. “From the moment I started, a couple of the councillors looked at me, saying ‘look, she’s recording it’,” she said.

“There was nothing contentious going on. You could see they got uncomfortable and asked me to stop filming. They refused to carry on the meeting while I was filming.

“Coun Anderson said they should call the police. We weren’t being disruptive, it was the councillors causing the uproar.”

On the footage, town clerk John Price can be heard trying to explain to members that the council has to make the provision to allow filming

Despite this, Mayor Tony Wilkinson suspended the meeting, saying: “My ruling is that there shall be no recording until such a time that this is adopted by this council.”

In an explanation of the legislation, the Government website at www.gov.uk states: “The new law aims to end active resistance amongst some councils to greater openness.

“Councils have even called the police to arrest people who tried to report, tweet or film council meetings, or claimed spurious ‘health and safety’ or ‘reputational risks’ to digital reporting.”

Andy Silvester, of the Tax Payers’ Alliance, which campaigned for the new law, said: “The new laws laid down by the Department for Communities and Local Government couldn’t be clearer.

“Councils must allow their proceedings to be filmed, opening up local government to democratic scrutiny and increasing the accountability of our elected representatives. Democracy cannot live behind closed doors and taxpayers are entitled to ask why the councillors were so keen to switch the camera off.”

Coun Keith Hepple, leader of Hetton Town Council, said: “The town council meeting on Monday, October 20, 2014, was suspended by the Mayor due to disruptive behaviour by a person.

“This was whilst discussing another issue. The town council is adopting a similar policy and procedure to meet the new legislation and whereby meetings can be recorded and filmed.

“Guidance has been taken from the National Association of Local Councils and their guidelines, and from discussions with other neighbouring local authorities, to ensure the council or its committees will be fully aware of the requirements and constraints of such.”

A spokesman for Labour North said: “This is a matter for the town council to look into under their complaints procedure and not for the Labour Party.”