It’s been more than a year since the video of a chaotic Handforth Parish Council meeting went viral and made Jackie Weaver an unlikely star. While most viral ‘hits’ last five minutes, Jackie is still getting calls (like this one!) although she claims to have no idea why she’s earned a longer-lasting cult status.
“I kind of get why there was the original interest - but what I don’t get is why I’m still busy months later. When this ‘hit’, and it did feel like it ‘hit’, my husband and I thought ‘let’s enjoy the weekend as it’ll be over by Monday’ and then when it continued we thought, ‘it’ll be over by the end of the week’ and yet here we now."
Governors and trustees who saw the meeting which Jackie facilitated may have found themselves reflecting on several of the issues raised: remote meetings, board dynamics, getting the right people around the table, codes of conduct and much more. Jackie, who’s official title is Chief Officer at Cheshire Association of Local Councils (ChALC), says her first reaction to the video going viral was anxiety:
“The last thing I would have wanted to do was show parish councils in the worst possible light. I’ve been around parish councils for the past 25 years so I was concerned but the tone changed really quickly into something positive and then into interest in town and parish councils, which we have never had.”
So what was Jackie doing at the meeting and why had it been called.
“Our rules (The Local Government Act 1972) require that meetings are normally called by the clerk, but the clerk had been unilaterally suspended by the chairman who’d then appointed himself clerk. The other people who can call a meeting are the chair or two councillors.
You have to give notice to the clerk and wait until it’s been refused, give notice to the chairman and wait until it’s been refused and then two councillors can call a meeting. The councillors had gone through this torturous process and then called a meeting but there wasn’t much hope of the chairman, who was also apparently now clerk, being able to clerk it for them, was there? (laughs).
So the councillors asked my organisation, ChALC, to provide a clerk for the evening, which isn’t that unusual. I was there to facilitate the meeting and had it got started in the normal way the councillors would have appointed me clerk for the meeting but we never even got to that stage.”
Jackie, what’s striking about the meeting, even from the short clip most of us have seen, is how well you handled yourself. How were you actually feeling? What kept you so calm?
“I certainly had a grasp of the legalities - 25 years does that to you. I was expecting the meeting to be difficult which is why I went myself. The kind of issue you saw blow up that night doesn’t happen in two minutes. Clearly there were issues there and I’d been involved in trying to resolve them for nearly two years but I was shocked by one of the councillors - by his anger and hostility.”
How would this sort of hostility have played out in a face-to-face meeting?
“I’ve been asked that often so I think about it. I think if I had been going to a physical meeting I would have made sure the police community support officer was there that night. Again, it was the disruption I was expecting but what surprised me was that it did feel quite personal.
There had been examples of really poor behaviour in Handforth for some time.Unfortunately, although we have a really good code of conduct, it comes with no sanctions. Even when you’ve been found guilty of the most appalling breach of the code of conduct - nothing happens. I think what happened over a period of time is that the behaviour just got worse and nobody challenged it.”
Do you think with a different make-up of councillors, it would have been different?
“Yes I do - what’s been quite interesting is how the meetings have changed. Two of the three who were seen shouting in the video clip have resigned and the third is now chairman. Don’t get me wrong - I don’t watch their meetings - but sometimes I see YouTube and it’s clear that since that evening the new chairman is much weaker, an almost sorry character, when he doesn’t have the other councillors with him.”
I think it was about power - when the three of them were together they felt powerful.”
Do you have any tips on how others might manage potentially challenging or disruptive situations?
“For me there’s two different things. One is being very clear about what you’re trying to do. I think that’s something that chairs can find quite difficult. When you see a meeting chaired well, you don’t notice it - but you sure as heck notice it when they’re chaired badly.
If a chair is very clear on what decision needs to be taken - what the focus is - then I think it goes well. The kind of extra bonus you get from that is that it doesn’t feel as personal. It feels like you’re both fighting for something, rather than it being an attack on you.”
Training is a really important part of school governance - is training mandatory in local governance?
Training of any kind is not mandatory. Every time we have a review of the code of conduct, which comes up every five years or so with the government, we push for mandatory training - even if it’s a sanction for breaching the code of conduct. But we can’t get sanctions introduced at all which is really disappointing.
Do you think you’ll have better leverage for introducing sanctions since the Handforth meeting?
“I think it’s getting a bigger voice which I think is important. If we get more people involved in local councils and local democracy - we have to be able to tell them that categorically they will be safe and sadly we can’t do that now. Not even for employees.”
I have to ask - is school governance something you’d consider Jackie?
“Yes - it’s the kind of thing I’m interested in. I’m also chair of the school appeals panel for Cheshire East and West.”
So if any of the boards we work with wanted to get in touch - you’d be happy?
“Yes, I think we have a lot to learn from each other. I know the parishes were deeply unhappy when the ability to nominate a school governor was removed from them about 15 years ago.
I think we share a lot of the same kind of people. Often the people who are involved in local democracy at parish level are also school governors. There’s an opportunity here for us to work much more closely together than we normally do.
We worked across the country about 15 years ago on putting together a pack for parish councillors to use to go into schools and talk to pupils about local democracy but we couldn’t get past the front door in many instances, which was a real shame. I think we’re seeing the upshot of that now when young people start to show interest in their community but don’t know to make the connection with their town or parish council and its decision-making.”
Is that another message for governors - ask your local town or parish councillors to come and talk to your pupils about local democracy?
“Yes, very much so. Not everyone will be able to do it but if the individual parish council isn’t comfortable doing it then contact your local association of local councils and I’m sure they’ll be able to field someone who’s interested. We’re apolitical … and we’re free!”
Thanks to Jackie Weaver for a really interesting chat about local democracy and what we, as governors and trustees, share in common. As Jackie has highlighted, good chairing and professional clerking are really important in local government but also for us in school governance too.
In an effective meeting, a good chair works together with a governance professional and, as Jackie explained, the board is clear about the decisions it needs to make.
Although there are no sanctions for breaches of local government codes of conduct - school governing boards have the right to suspend or remove a governor who’s breached a code of conduct that he or she signed and agreed to follow.
The chat with Jackie also got us thinking about the crossover between local councillors and school governors, so we did a bit of data mining on GovernorHub.
604 of our members on GovernorHub are listed as councillors. Although the average age is 58 and some are in their 80s, 15 of those councillors are under 30 years old and 8 are aged 25 or younger! We can’t tell you their gender as that’s not data we collect I’m afraid.
If you’d like to see how Jackie’s viral meeting looks ‘on paper’ (maybe one for governance professionals!), you can read the minutes for the extraordinary meeting of the Handforth Parish Council Planning and Environment Committee held on Thursday 10th December 2020 here.
Finally, you can find out about your association of local councils here.