A BID to extend the virtual Wokingham Borough Council meeting descended into farce – and a row over voting.
At 10.02pm, on Thursday, September 17, Cllr Prue Bray (Lib Dems, Winnersh) asked the mayor, Cllr Malcolm Richards, for a vote to extend the meeting, which had started at 7pm, by 30 minutes so that the final two motions could be debated.
One was on holding additional meetings to clear a backlog of council business that had built up, the second on pavement accessibility for people with visual impairments.
The motion on democracy would have read: “The continued failure of recent Council meetings to conclude the agenda business suggests that the existing democratic process has failed.
“As a direct result of this Wokingham Borough’s Residents and their Borough Council elected Members have been let down very badly.
“To correct this serious democratic failure and get the Council back on track this Council must immediately programme in as many additional Council meetings as is required to get Council business up to date.”
Cllr Stephen Conway (Lib Dem, Twyford) seconded the extension and Cllr Richards moved to a vote.
As this was an online meeting using Microsoft Teams and broadcast live on YouTube, councillors are able to raise a virtual hand to indicate their vote. Unfortunately, some Conservatives voted both for and against extending the meeting.
“It is quite confusing,” Cllr Richards said. “We have to do it again then.”
He was interrupted by Cllr Maria Gee (Lib Dem, Wescott), who said that if someone had voted twice, it was their first vote that should count. “Both Cllr Patman and Cllr Batth shouldn’t be counted the second time round.”
Cllr Imogen Shepherd-DuBey (Lib Dem, Emmbrook) accused councillors of “messing around, not voting correctly”.
A call to run the vote again led to a firm “No” from Lib Dem group leader Cllr Lindsay Ferris, who was followed by Cllr Bray who said of the Conservatives: “You didn’t vote the way we told you, so now you have to vote the way we’re telling you,” she said.
But Cllr Richards said that the councillors’ debate was “just wasting time” and renewed calls to “start afresh” with a new vote. “Please do not vote twice,” he said.
Cllr Ferris said: “I will be asking (Wokingham Borough Council’s monitoring officer) Andrew Moulton to make an adjudication please. That’s what he’s here for.
“What does (the council’s) constitution say about when people have voted twice please?”
Cllr Ferris then complained about being muted on the virtual meeting, but Cllr Richards denied it was him: “I haven’t muted you, I don’t have the ability to do that,” he said.
There was then an adjournment to the meeting while the mayor sought advice from Mr Moulton.
On his return, he said: “The constitution does not say which way (to go). It is silent on this. But it does say that if people vote twice, that vote is invalid.”
Cllr Ferris then warned that if the vote was invalidated and had to be re-run: “I know what I will do next time – vote twice”.
Mr Moulton then came into the meeting, pointing out that councillors can change their vote up until the point that the actual decision is announced. “In the circumstances we’re in, I think we should start the process again so there is no confusion in terms of the vote,” he added.
A second vote was taken, and Cllr Ferris did vote twice, despite being asked not to.
When challenged by Cllr Pauline Jorgensen (Conservative, Hillside), he said: “Absolutely, it is invalidated.”
“I think you’ve invalidated your own (vote), I’m not sure (if you have for) anybody else’s,” Cllr Jorgensen said.
Cllr Bray said that her opposition member’s comment was “nonsensical”.
After a bit of tussle, Cllr Ferris gained control of the council chamber and said that a vote shouldn’t be held twice. “This is a point of principle,” he said. “This has to be dealt with by the constitutional review working group after the meeting. I want it to be on the agenda because it was obvious that there were two members of the Conservative group who voted for (the extension) because that’s what they thought.
“And then it was clear that it was to be voted again, that’s what happened, so they voted twice, and that’s what I deliberately voted twice the second time.
“You can do what you like … (the constitution) is silent on this so we can carry on all night because if you want me to, I’ll keep voting twice.”
Cllr Jorgensen argued: “You don’t know why people voted twice at all” saying that it could have been caused by sticky keys.
Cllr Wayne Smith (Conservative, Hurst) pointed out that 15 minutes had been wasted on this vote.
Cllr Richards, as mayor, suggested a recorded vote as people couldn’t vote twice. It was proposed by Cllr Jorgensen and seconds by Cllr Keith Baker (Conservative, Coronation), but during the voting process, Cllr Andy Croy (Labour, Bulmershe and Whitegates) pointed out that six members needed to ask for a recorded vote. The mayor overruled him and carried on.
The Conservatives won and Cllr Richards moved to conclude the meeting by 10.30pm.
Cllr Ken Miall (Conservative, Maiden Erlegh) said that it was “10.30pm now” but other councillors pointed out it was actually around 10.20pm.
As there was fewer than 15 minutes of the meeting remaining, it was not possible to start debating a new motion, and – despite fresh protests – he brought the meeting to a close.