Selecting the committee (Jonathan Wills)
This is a copy of a letter to fellow councillors.
I’ve been giving some more thought to the composition of our new executive committee. This is critically important if the reforms we’ve been debating over the past few months are to restore public confidence in our local political system.
It seems to me that the current proposal from the “sounding board” group risks creating, by default, precisely the over-concentration of powers that we wished to avoid when we unanimously rejected the consultant’s “Model One” (an over-mighty executive advised by powerless “forums” for each area of council business).
If we agree to have an executive committee of 11 members then, because of the convener’s casting vote at full council, it becomes extremely unlikely that the 11 councillors who’re not on the executive committee could ever successfully challenge its decisions. These ordinary members would become, effectively, powerless. Indeed, there’d be little point in being a councillor if you weren’t on the executive committee. This would hardly be a gain for democracy.
If the executive committee is also to include four committee vice-chairmen as ex-officio members, the situation becomes even less democratic. Surely a vice-chairman should have a vote on the executive only when standing in for an absent committee chairman?
Worse, if the convener’s to be a voting member of the executive committee, as proposed, it would fatally confuse and undermine the separation of powers agreed when we divided the roles of political leader and civic head. The convener is supposed to stand above the political fray, not be in the middle of the scrum.
In short, the current proposals risk creating what amounts to a permanent cabal. That is not what the Accounts Commission and the Scottish ministers have asked us to do. It goes in the opposite direction.
I therefore propose that the executive committee should have no more than nine members – the leader, the four main committee chairmen and four other members elected by the whole council. Indeed, you can argue that it would be better to have only seven members (with two, rather than four, elected by the full council). This seems to me to create a workable system with appropriate checks and balances.
The subject of committee membership may seem dull and academic but if we get this crucial reform wrong we’ll regret it for many years to come.