FOR the uninitiated, this next sentence might be a strange one to read: A clip from Handforth Parish Council’s December 2020 planning and environment committee meeting went viral yesterday (February 5).

The 30-second clip, posted on Twitter by Janine Mason, has gained more than 2 million views in less than 24 hours — and the original 18-minute ‘best of’ video now has in excess of 300,000 views.

That prompts a few questions, like who is in the clip, what their argument is about, and just why their disagreement is so poisonous.

Now, the Local Democracy Reporting Service will attempt to answer those questions.

Who is in the Twitter clip?

It starts with Cllr Brian Tolver, who is the chair of the parish council. The clip then cuts to Jackie Weaver — who is the clerk to the meeting, according to the official minutes.

However, she is not the official clerk of HPC — she is acting as clerk for the meeting, but is actually Chief Officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils (CHALC).

Ms Weaver is then quickly interrupted by another councillor, this time council vice-chair Aled Brewerton.

In the longer version of the video, other councillors can be heard, including Susan Moore, Barry Burkhill, Cynthia Samson, and John Smith.

A summary of the clip from Local Democracy Reporter Ethan Davies

What is their argument about?

Records show that the meeting was called by Cllrs John Smith and Susan Moore, because Brian Tolver ‘refused’ to do so.

Despite this, Brian Tolver actually shows up to the meeting, and assumes chair due to his position within the council.

However, in the preamble before the agenda gets started, he quickly questioned the legitimacy of the meeting, claiming that there was no ‘Proper Officer’ in attendance, which is required in the council’s standing orders.

Cllr Tolver actually changes his name on Zoom to ‘Handforth PC Clerk’ in protest, going on to say again that it is illegal, which is a comment supported by Cllr Brewerton.

Cllr Tolver says: “You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver, no authority at all!”

Jackie Weaver then removes Brian Tolver, prompting Aled Brewerton’s outburst: “Read the standing orders! Read them and understand them!”

Other councillors described this episode as ‘appalling behaviour’.

Following the clip’s popularity, Brian Tolver has stood by his actions, telling PA: “I cannot think of any other council meeting anywhere, that was taken over by an unqualified member of the public like this.

“Removing half the councillors from the meeting, denied half of the voters of the village from being represented — it was an appalling attack on their democratic rights.

“This made tensions rise, and that is why voices were raised in the second meeting.”

Their argument is about the authority Jackie Weaver has — as she is from CHALC, she is not a council employee, but is registered as clerk to the meeting.

This appears to be something of a grey area in the council’s standing orders.

Section three, called ‘Proper Officer’, says: “The Council’s Proper Officer shall be either (i) the Clerk or such other employee as may be nominated by the Council from time to time or (ii) such other employee appointed by the Council to undertake the role of Proper Officer during the Proper Officer’s absence. 

“The Proper Officer and the employee appointed to act as such during the Proper officer’s absence shall fulfil the duties assigned to the Proper Officer in Standing Orders.”

The crucial point is if Jackie Weaver can be considered to have been appointed by the council to fulfill the role of proper officer despite not being an employee.

She has been effectively parachuted in to keep the council running smoothly, which Cllrs Tolver and Brewerton object to, but it appears that the standing orders were never designed to cope with such a situation.

A longer 'Best Of' video posted on YouTube

Why is it so heated?

Handforth Parish Council has been the site of long-running battles dating back years.

In 2017, residents complained about the conduct of their parish officials, with Cllr Moore saying at the time: “I don’t like people arguing in meetings, I don’t think it’s productive, I don’t think dragging people’s names into meetings is productive at all… and you should not bring personal issues into any of these meetings.”

Pledging that the situation would improve, Cllr Samson said: ““I wish I knew [why councillors couldn’t work together]. I will get an answer for you, I will look into it. I agree with you wholeheartedly.”

It’s thought that, in the past, when meetings took place in-person, each side would film it themselves — but the exact reasons why the divide is so great remain unclear.

The saga is so deeply-entrenched that Cheshire East Council’s Monitoring Officer, David Brown, who ensures all authorities in the area behave in a lawful way.

In a letter from David Brown posted on HPC’s website, it says: “I have received a multiplicity of complaints and referrals. 

“The most recent referrals relate to suggestions that some members of Handforth Parish Council have purported to take decisions that are plainly unlawful, and these decisions have resulted in expenditure of public funds.”

What this means for Handforth

Although many people online have taken great joy out of the clip, there is a serious point.

HPC has been in a state of factionalism for some time, meaning that residents are less likely to be able to advance their views.

While parish councils do not have a great degree of power, they are well-respected in most cases by borough authorities (such as Cheshire East), especially when it comes to planning applications — with testimony from parish committees frequently used as it’s though their local knowledge is invaluable.

HPC has been contacted for comment.