I now have permission to publish the response from Democratic Services at Sandwell Council. My thanks to them for permission to publish and for their timely response to this problem:-
"Dear BBCB" (I edited this bit the rest is as it came)
Thank you for your recent e-mail to the Leader regarding you attendance at the Council Meeting on 29th September.
The Leader has asked me to look into the issues raised and rather than provide the information to the Leader I thought I would reply directly to you in case you had any follow-up questions and also to reply by e-mail because of the current postal difficulties. I hope this is acceptable to you.
I will try to answer the points you raise in the order of your e-mail.
In relation to the speaker system I am pleased to advise you that the Council is already in the process of making improvements to its audio visual system in the Council Chamber which will include a new microphone and speaker system. Similarly, the Council was aware that it needed to improve its presentations equipment and this is also being addressed as part of the improvements. The work begins in two weeks time and should be completed before the end of the month.
The Council has known for a while that it needed to take some action but it is one of those situations where we felt we cannot win. In the current economic climate it was considered that the Council may be criticised through the media for spending money on such equipment so we held back from doing the work as long as we were able. However, we reached a point where we felt we needed to take some action and your comments have borne out that we were right to do so which is reassuring, thank you. We still do expect to get criticised as Walsall MBC recently were for doing similar works but again we are now a little more assured that there are residents like yourself who will appreciate the need to have such facilities in good working order.
In an attempt to improve accountability and because not all the Council Chamber is visible from the public gallery, the Council has also agreed to link its microphones to a camera system so that when a member is speaking, visitors sitting in the public gallery will be able to see the member clearly on two large display screens, to help identify who they are and to provide a complete message as body language and facial expressions can also add to the understanding of what is being said.
This conveniently links to your point regarding the comments made by Councillor Sadie Smith. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the Council meeting on this occasion but my Democratic Services Officer representing me at the meeting tells me that the exchange of comments between Councillor Smith and Councillor Rowley were light-hearted banter based on an ongoing series of events at recent meetings and that both members appeared to be smiling as they exchanged comments. With the difficulties with the sound system and not being able to see both members fully from the gallery, I can understand how easily what was said could have been perceived as rude or offensive by anyone sitting in the gallery. Had it been anything other than political banter, I am confident that the Mayor would have intervened.
The comment made by Sadie Smith to Councillor Derek Rowley related to the decisions which are made by Cabinet Members during the weeks running up to a Council meeting and on which they take questions from other members. At the last two Council meetings, Councillor Rowley has not had any decisions placed before Council and Councillor Smith picked up on this by asking, light-heartedly, if we therefore still needed a Cabinet Member for Community Safety if he isn't taking any decisions. Councillor Smith will, of course, have been aware that Councillor Rowley has a much bigger role than just making decisions. Councillor Rowley took the comment in the spirit it was made and responded in the same way.
Exchanges like this within the Council Chamber are not uncommon and do provide a little light relief between the consideration of what can sometimes be very serious matters of business or quite dry subjects but which the Council has to address. I understand the evening was quite a difficult one in terms of the political exchanges around some of the issues but we do have times like this in the political environment in which Council's have to operate. As well as representing its citizens, members are affiliated to political parties and are expected to represent the views and policies of those parties.
I do hope that the events of the 29th have no disillusioned you too much and that you will attend future meetings of the Council. The Council does find it very disappointing that more of its residents do not take an interest in local affairs as you and your wife do but again looking at national figures for attendance at public meetings, it appears to be a reflection on today's society.
Can I thank you again for taking the time to contact the Leader as feedback from the community we serve does help us to improve our services for the future and in closing, could I take the opportunity to promote our CMIS system which allows you access to all the decisions the Council takes and the reports that members will be considering or have considered. For example, you can se what will be on the agenda for the full Council Meeting before you attend. If this is of interest to you, log on to the Council's website www.sandwell.gov.uk and click on the link towards the bottom of the page 'committee information'. The system is quite easy to use but if you need any further guidance please do not hesitate to contact any member of my Democratic Services Team who will help you (0121 569 3184 - direct line)
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like any further clarification of any of the points in my response."
Two issues come to mind for me. 1) The over reaction to what the press might say. We live in a democracy it is the people’s views that matter not what the press say but I can understand to some extent where they are coming from here. 2) Cllr Smith’s remarks seem to me rather flippant during such an important debate. I am unhappy with the behaviour of this particular Cllr. on some local issues but more on that later in the week.