'Orwellian' - Row breaks out over 'muted' town meeting

Madeleine Ashcroft, Sheringham's mayor.

Madeleine Ashcroft, Sheringham's mayor. - Credit: Archant

A row has broken out over the handling of a town's annual meeting at which everyone except the person speaking was kept on mute.

But Sheringham's mayor, Madeleine Ashcroft, has defended the way she chaired the meeting, which was held over Zoom on April 27.

Jon Payne, who resigned as a town councillor last year, wrote to Mrs Ashcroft with "serious concerns" over the conduct of the meeting, calling it "Orwellian".

Jon Payne has resigned from Sheringham Town Council. Picture: Jon Payne

Jon Payne criticised the conduct of Sheringham's annual town meeting.   - Credit: Archant

Mr Payne said attendees had no chance to ask questions - except to Mrs Ashcroft herself via private messaging, nor did members of the public have a chance to submit agenda items. 

He said: "Any member of the public on the electoral register is entitled to speak at an annual parish meeting.

"[Mrs Ashcroft] set tonight’s meeting up so that all participants were on forced ‘mute’ and could not speak.

"This was not 'our' meeting. It was a set piece, carefully stage-managed to deny the residents of Sheringham their democratic and natural right to quiz their councillors, ask questions, and hold the council to account."

Mrs Ashcroft hit back at the claims. She said people could have asked questions in public during the meeting, but none had been submitted a deadline set by the council of April 23.

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She said she also had to be mindful that it was a pre-election period - also known as purdah - "bearing in mind the likelihood of contentious issues being raised".

Mrs Ashcroft said some unannounced questions that would have been asked could have either contravened purdah rules or "stirred up negativity and angst at what was intended to be a positive event celebrating and applauding achievements during a very difficult 12 months of Covid restrictions".

She said members of the public did have a chance to add agenda items, but the only one who came forward to do this was Rob Spray, who went onto speak at the meeting about the Sheringham Snorkel Trail.

Mr Payne said not allowing members of the public to speak without notice ran against the Local Government Act and the town council's own standing orders, but Mrs Ashcroft pointed out that this was not a town council meeting. 

She said questions which had been posed during the meeting by private message would be answered via the town council website by the end of the week.