Controversy and confusion surrounds a by-election to fill a vacant seat on Sleaford Town Council.
Quarrington Ward voters will go to the polls on Thursday, February 1 for the seat vacated in November by Jan Brealey Cook.
Candidates standing are Paul Coyne (Independent) and Stephen John Shanahan-Kluth (Conservative).
However this comes after Mr Coyne felt compelled to resign as a town councillor for the Castle Ward last week, claiming he was advised to do so and seek re-election ‘at the earliest opportunity’ by the Government Legal Department. He claims it wrongly stated in correspondence over a separate legal matter that he was not in fact an elected member, but was co-opted and therefore ineligible to claim a basic allowance, despite official records of him winning his seat with 436 votes in May 2015 at the local council elections.
Mr Coyne explained that he felt he had no choice but to step down and stand in the neighbouring Quarrington by-election due to the tight timescale to get the confusion cleared up before the deadline for candidates’ nominations. He accepted that it may, ultimately, be to his cost in the long-run if he fails to be re-elected but was a moral point of principle.
The matter arose because he and another ex-councillor, Jan Brealey Cook, are seeking a judicial review against Sleaford Town Council and the Department for Local Government and Communities over the status of co-opted members and their apparent ineligibility to claim a basic allowance, despite carrying out the same role as elected members, having been selected when an election is not called to fill a vacancy. Mr Coyne says it is a matter of fairness and equality.
In information submitted to the court which he claims to have seen, Mr Coyne alleges the Government Legal Department has misunderstood and supplied incorrect information. He said: “The Government Legal Department has told the court that I am not elected and further that I am encouraged to become an elected councillor at the earliest opportunity.
“If they say that I am not elected, despite my belief and facts to the contrary, then I am not elected.”
He said: “I regret that resignation from office has potential financial implications for Sleaford Town Council in that there may need to be a further election to replace me.”
The Government Legal Department has said it has now clarified its wording but denies implying that Mr Coyne was not an elected councillor.
Clerk to the Town Council, Kevin Martin, said it appeared that the Government Department had suggested that Mr Coyne “is not an elected councillor when he clearly is.”
He added: “The legislation, whilst slightly confusing, only allows elected, and not co-opted, councillors to be able to claim the basic allowance. This situation applies up and down the country where there are councils with co-opted councillors and who pay an allowance.“
There are currently two co-opted town councillors - Fran Richards and Steph Dale. Jan Brearley Cook was also co-opted until her resignation. The council has agreed to offer an allowance of £600 a year to elected members.
Stephen Shanahan-Kluth, the Conservative by-election candidate, commented: “I can understand why he (Mr Coyne) feels so strongly, but Government legislation is quite clear about this matter – co-opted members are not entitled as they have not been elected by the voting public, but have been selected by the Town Council members from a limited pool of volunteers. This is the reason for the legislation – to prevent cronyism.”
He said: “As I know that Paul was elected and must have all the appropriate paperwork to prove this, I can only assume a mistake was made, but that can be rectified by getting in contact with the appropriate people and with the correct evidence.”
Mr Shanahan-Kluth said: “He is trying to make a point in support of a fellow ex-council member. This shows great loyalty, but has resulted in a totally inappropriate waste of public money.”
He added: “As a result, he has left the people who voted for him without their elected representative.
“He has stood immediately in another ward to ‘prove’ that he is elected when he doesn’t need to, having already been elected.
“I really feel that it would have been more effective if Paul had continued his campaign through larger national council associations to institute a change in the legislation.”
He welcomed an opponent to give voters a choice.
A Government Legal Department spokesperson said: “Mr Coyne notified us by email that in the summary grounds of response we referred to the ‘claimants’, rather than the ‘first claimant’, as not being entitled to allowance payments as co-opted councillors. Mr Coyne gave notice of his resignation in the same email. As soon as we became aware we wrote to the court to amend the references of ‘claimants’ to ‘first claimant’ or ‘co-opted councillors’.
“We do not believe that any reasonable implication could have been made that we did not believe that Mr Coyne was not an elected parish councillor such that he had to resign from his post. It was very clear in the summary grounds of response that any reference to ‘claimants’ referred to ‘co-opted’ councillors.”