25 September 2023

Oh wow, that was a week that’ll live long in my memory, for some very good reasons and some not so positive!

I’m going to depart from my normal blog style and not report on last week in strictly chronological order. I’m going to cover the second half of the week first and then return to address the events of the first half. Hopefully, the reasons for this will be clear by the time you reach the end!

OK, here we go.

Wednesday last week saw me in the Civic Centre having an informal chat with the Chair of the Trowbridge Service Users’ Group. This is a really supportive group open to anyone with mental health issues living in and around Trowbridge. What makes this group so special and so relatable is that the group is run by the service users themselves for their own well-being.

The group has been running since early 2018, when it was set up in the community room at Tesco on County Way. The idea was to provide a safe space that was neither work- nor therapy-focused but focused on providing a social environment where a community of support could be built.

The group has since evolved and adapted, mainly as a result of listening to the service users themselves to find out what it is that they want. During the pandemic, the group was forced to take their service online, but after we were all freed from lockdowns, they returned to the town hall (albeit with a very limited service). The group had obviously suffered during COVID but soon resolved to focus on rebuilding and returning their service to pre-pandemic levels, or better.

The aims of the Trowbridge Service Users Group are:

  • To provide support and friendship to those living with mental illness.
  • To develop and grow the Trowbridge Service Users Group with the input and support of group members.
  • To be a free service.
  • To fill the gaps in mental health services in Trowbridge and surrounding areas.

Back to Wednesday morning. The reason for my meeting with the Chair of the Group was to talk about ways in which we, the Town Council, can help raise awareness of the group within the community.

We (TTC) are always willing to help publicise any events being planned by a community group in the town. We can publicise community news on our “Discover Trowbridge” social media channels and monthly newsletter. We can (and do) also publicise events going on in Trowbridge on our website and (if provided by the organisation seeking publicity) by placing paper flyers on our community stand in the Information Centre at the Civic Centre on St Stephens Place. We can also, as individual councillors, use our own social media channels to publicise events and relay news to our own followers, so if you or your group has any links to individual councillors, I suggest that you contact them personally to ask them to push your news as well as ask TTC to publicise it for you.

As with almost everything these days, there are always provisos. We reserve the right not to publicise anything that we reasonably consider to be offensive or illegal.

OK, that bit of “legalese” is over; it’s on to the next meeting on Wednesday. This was an internal get-together to discuss next year’s Mayor’s Civic Dinner. Save the date, folks. It’s the 23rd of March, 2024. I’m not going to spoil the surprise, but the theme is a brand new one, and the entertainment on offer will be truly world-class! As every year, all money raised will go to my two chosen charities for my mayoral year: Stepping Stones and Trowbridge Future.

On Thursday morning, I’d arranged to meet the chair of the Trowbridge Guild of Community Service. The Guild provides transport for elderly and disabled people and community groups in Trowbridge and surrounding areas. They have two minibuses, which are both accessible for wheelchair users. These are used for taking customers to and from activities, day trips, shopping trips, and even, on occasion, some one-off journeys that may have been specially asked for.

Now what I hadn’t realised was that, as the current Mayor of Trowbridge, I am also the current Honorary President of the Trowbridge Guild of Community Service, and as such, I’ve been asked to chair the opening parts of their annual general meeting on Monday, the 9th of October. The point of this get-together was to find out exactly what’s expected of me, both when the group gets together for their AGM and throughout the rest of the year.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again before I step down next May. There are so many individuals and community groups that just get on with supporting those in need in and around Trowbridge without fuss and without any overt “virtue signalling”. The two groups I met last week may be very different, but they share this common ethos. I just have to admire all they do each and every day to make life just that bit easier for the most vulnerable in our community.

Thursday afternoon saw me at one of those regular events that I really enjoy, a citizenship ceremony at County Hall. These ceremonies take place monthly and are the final stage in welcoming those wanting to join our national family as fully-fledged citizens of the United Kingdom. They’re always happy and joyful occasions that are a real pleasure to take part in (albeit in a relatively small way). The ceremony is conducted by the Registrar and usually attended by one of the Deputy Lieutenants of Wiltshire, representing King Charles III, and myself (or the Deputy Mayor, as we tend to take it in turns), representing the local authority in which the ceremony takes place. Speeches are made, photographs are taken, and everyone leaves clutching their new Certificate of Citizenship. It’s a genuinely happy and empowering experience.

Back to the beginning of the week, and on to what probably was (and hopefully will always be) my worst experience as Mayor.

When I say “Mayor”, I’m also including my parallel role as Chair of Trowbridge Town Council. My function here is to chair all meetings of the full Town Council, acting in a non-partisan way and applying the Council’s Standing Orders in an accurate, even-handed, and fair way to the conduct of the meeting.

I’d like to think that I’ve always lived up to this ideal of impartiality and integrity, but last Tuesday I made a mistake. It was an honest mistake, but it did lead to a breach of our standing orders in the way the business of the meeting was conducted.

The following day, as soon as I realised (to my own satisfaction) that I’d definitely made an error, I apologised to the councillor who had, in my opinion, rightly challenged my ruling during the meeting. To my mind, this was the correct thing to do. It didn’t matter that the breach resulted from erroneous advice that I may have been given during the meeting; I was chairing the meeting, and the responsibility was thus mine.

I also immediately wrote to the Monitoring Officer at Wiltshire Council to report myself for a potential breach of our Code of Conduct. The Monitoring Officer very quickly determined that there had been no infringement on my part and that no further investigation was necessary, but I’ve learned my lesson, and I’ll be armed with a hard copy of our Standing Orders every time I chair a Town Council meeting in the future!

What really surprised me, and if I’m honest, hurt me, was the reaction from certain quarters in the days that followed. I was accused of being “morally corrupt” by one particularly vociferous member of the public. There were implications of political bias in a rather sensationalised article in the press (referring to me as the “Liberal Democrat Mayor of Trowbridge”; I’m a Liberal Democrat Councillor, but when acting as Mayor, I am emphatically and proudly non-partisan) and accusations of participating in a public squabble with another Councillor in the comments section of the same local newspaper (also untrue; I’ve never once used the comments feature of that paper).

I’d just like to state that as Mayor and as Chair of the Council, I take my responsibility to act impartially and without political bias or favour very seriously. None of these attacks on my probity are true, and none have been backed up with any actual evidence. To me, this whole sorry episode started with an honestly made mistake, which was admitted and for which an apology was offered. If others now decide to politicise these events in order to attack my integrity, then that says more about them than me!

It’s a side of local politics and public life today that I honestly wish didn’t exist.

That’s it for now, so until next time… keep safe and (even more heartfelt than normally) please be kind to each other.

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