MAGNA’S big hall evoked memories of school exam season at the start of a new term for Rotherham Council.
The first test for RMBC had been finding a suitable venue, with pandemic rules allowing online meetings expired and the Civic theatre undergoing improvement works.
Councillors — more than half of them new — were on tables in twos, divided by the same plastic shields which protected ballot counters at the elections in the same room a couple of weeks earlier.
Overseeing proceedings on a stage at the front was the Mayor of Rotherham, Cllr Jenny Andrews — voted to continue in the role for a third straight year.
Opposition leader Emily Barley, Conservatives, asked: “Do you not think that the Labour party’s nomination of the same mayor for the third year in a row, in what is commonly an annual honorary position, exposes the lack of depth in the dramatically smaller Labour group, and further contributes to the impression that Labour is something of a setting sun in Rotherham?”
Council leader Cllr Chris Read replied: “No.”
It was Cllr David Roche proposing Cllr Andrews for the first citizen berth this time around. He said what was needed this year was stability, experience and key skills — “someone who can represent all parts of our community”.
Cllr Rose McNeely, mayor in 2010/11, said: “I was able to do 625 functions in that year; Cllr Andrews has not been able to do the same.
“I know through experience that businesses, the public and especially children are so excited when the mayor is able to accept invitations from them. Cllr Andrews has not been able to do that in the last two years, through no fault of her own, because of the pandemic.”
Rotherham Democratic Party put forward Cllr Ian Jones — Labour’s original choice but deselected by the group in spring 2020 following his cross-party work with RDP in the battle against Droppingwell tip.
RDP leader Cllr Rob Elliott pondered whether Labour’s proposal of the same councillor for mayor again meant the party saw the position as obsolete and was preparing to get rid of it.
“We believe the role is vital to the promotion of the town,” added Cllr Elliott, as he proposed his party colleague as the alternative choice.
“Cllr Jones has supported his community for more than 20 years. I could go on and on about his achievements. I can guarantee any community in Rotherham, if asked, would lend their support to Ian.”
Conservative and Lib Dem members backed Cllr Jones to take the role lined up for him by choosing him as deputy in 2019.
Tory Cllr Greg Reynolds — formerly on the council with UKIP — said Cllr Jones was the sole Labour member who had made him feel welcome during his first stint.
“He was the only person who actually came and spoke to me in the spirit of co-operation,” said Cllr Reynolds.
Lib Dem leader Cllr Adam Carter said backing Cllr Jones was a decision to “respect and honour” the commitment made to him. “Labour failed to do that,” added Cllr Carter.
Independent Cllr Michael Sylvester voted against both mayoral candidates.
He praised Cllr Jones’ community efforts, such as with the Creswick Road cemetery clean-ups, but said he could not back the RDP man because of a far right video shared by the party online. He opposed Cllr Andrews because of her positive online interaction with Jahangir Akhtar, pre-CSE scandal deputy leader, saying this sent the wrong message to survivors.
With more councillors of working age now, the scheduling of council meetings is back on the agenda. Currently, only the Improving Lives committee meets after 5pm, which opposition members maintain restricts public attendance and causes difficulties for working councillors.
The public gallery at last Wednesday’s meeting contained just two people — both former councillors, and outnumbered by press.
Cllr Barley said: “It is high time that the council made our business more accessible to the public, and therefore ourselves more accountable, by scheduling these meetings, as well as the meetings of committees and boards, outside of office hours.”
Cllr Read said when the matter was last considered a couple of years ago, members “overwhelmingly” chose to stay with the current times.
Moving the Improving Lives meeting had seen no discernible increase in attendance but RMBC was not “wedded” to daytime starts, he added.
A revamp of the Rothercard was pledged by Cllr Dave Sheppard, cabinet member for the new social inclusion portfolio, in answer to a question by Cllr Sylvester.
The scheme provides discounts to residents including over 60s, looked after children and adults on low income for the likes of theatre tickets, furniture removal and leisure centre entry.
In years past, cafes and other private sector businesses became involved, meaning the stickers could be seen in many town centre shop windows.
Usage has dwindled but Cllr Sheppard said the council was proud to provide such a service and existing arrangements would be reviewed.
Cllr Denise Lelliott responded to Rother Valley MP Alexander Stafford’s labelling of the Forge Island cinema project as a “white elephant” in parliament.
The cabinet member for jobs and the local economy said: “I was astonished. I didn’t think it was the job of an MP to run down the town that you represent. You should be proud of all your town centres, not just one.”