LYDNEY town councillors leapt to the defence of their Council Tax precept after one of their own members questioned why it was the highest in the district.
And Mayor Natasha Saunders and Deputy Mayor Roger Holmes were also concerned that Cllr Claire Vaughan, who is the district cabinet member for housing, allegedly “lied” in a public meeting about having left the town council.
At a Forest Council meeting on February 16, Cllr Vaughan posed a question about Lydney’s Council Tax precept during discussions about the district budget for 2023/24.
She said: “As Lydney East ward member, I just want to know why Lydney town’s precept is the highest - quite a lot higher than Coleford and Cinderford - and Lydney residents are paying the most Council Tax in the district, more than anybody else. Can someone explain why?”
She was told by chief finance officer Andrew Knott that the precept was set by the town and parish councils, and that the district council has no say in it.
Cllr Vaughan said she would take it up with the town council as she feels it is “unfair” on Lydney residents.
Cllr Phillip Burford said the point that Lydney’s precept was higher than the district council’s was raised every year.
Cllr Harry Ives, a former Lydney town councillor, offered an explanation as to why that is.
He said: “Lydney Town Council is responsible for the stewardship, maintenance and upkeep of Bathurst Park.
“They are the sole trustee of the Bathurst Park and Recreation Ground Trust and that involves quite a lot of financial upkeep.
“A lot of the money that Lydney Town Council draws from residents is granted to the trust, which leads to a particularly high precept figure.
”Equally the council is responsible for large parcels of land under the stewardship of the recreation trust, which Lydney Town Council is the sole trustee of. That’s why their precept is always superficially higher than elsewhere in the district.”
He stressed that was the case to the best of his knowledge having not been a town councillor for four years, adding: “I know Cllr Vaughan is a current member of Lydney Town Council.”
Cllr Vaughan replied: “Can I just clarify that I’m no longer a town councillor for Lydney Town Council.
“I understand the reason for the park, but also Coleford has got a park and other areas they have to keep.”
But at the time, Cllr Vaughan was still in fact a town councillor, though she has since formally resigned.
She will not be replaced on the council until May, as the local elections are less than six months away.
Lydney Mayor Cllr Saunders and Deputy Roger Holmes said they were “disappointed” that she had chosen to, they feel, unfairly criticise the council, and that she seemingly lied about being a town councillor in a public meeting.
Cllr Vaughan had not been to a town council meeting for some time as she was looking to let a rule take effect where councillors are removed if they do not attend for six months, meaning the council could fill her position at the local elections in May rather than hold a by-election.
She said to her mind, ahead of the meeting on February 16, that rule had taken effect, and that she had had a number of conversations with the Mayor and other councillors that made it “absolutely clear” that she was no longer a member of the council.
She said: “It was my understanding that it would be of benefit to the council, which has seen a huge number of incomings and outgoings of members, to allow the six-month rule to take effect rather than offer my official resignation.”
She says that would have been the case had a town meeting taken place as originally scheduled on February 13, rather than after the district meeting, on February 20.
“For my part, in that technical mistake I offer my sincere apologies.”
But Mayor Saunders says Cllr Vaughan had sent apologies for a meeting as recently as November - three months ago - and had actually attended a grants meeting that month.
She also said that she told Cllr Vaughan, having been asked directly, that she was still on the council the day before she made the comments in the district meeting.
Deputy Mayor Holmes said: “At the end of the day, she told the district meeting that she’d resigned - she knew that was a lie. I don’t think, personally, that a district council cabinet member should be lying.”
On the precept, Mayor Saunders was appreciative of Cllr Harry Ives’ explanation at the meeting, adding: “Admittedly we have got a high precept, but then no other town council in the Forest has to deal with two massive trusts - Bathurst Park and the Recreation Trust - we have two cemeteries, we have the Mesne, we even have woodland.
“These are large parcels of land we have to maintain, no other town councils have that.”
She says the council had chosen, quite reluctantly, to increase it by 3.7 per cent this year - far less than some other councils - to cover costs.
Part of those costs are measures to discourage geese from lingering at Lydney Lake in large numbers, after a cull was deemed inappropriate for several reasons.
Those measures alone are set to cost the council £30,000 a year.
The Mayor questioned why Cllr Vaughan had even raised the Council Tax issue, suggesting she would’ve been involved in setting the town’s precept in the past and knows how budgets work having sat on the town council’s finance and scrutiny committee.
But Cllr Vaughan said she only noticed the issue when she compared Lydney’s precept with those of other councils.
She also says she has been subjected to “a series of personal attacks and criticism” on social media and by private message by some members of the council since she questioned the precept.
She said: “I reserve the right to question what I consider to be an excessive and unwarranted charge to the people of Lydney during a cost of living crisis.
“Even if I had attended the Lydney Town Council budget meeting I probably wouldn’t have brought it up, it was only when I was looking at the precepts for all towns in the district and noticed that Lydney residents pay a lot more than other towns. I just asked the question why?
“It was not done in malice or not, as the Mayor told me, ‘slagging’ the town council off.
“I will continue to speak for the people I represent and will not be bullied or threatened into silence on such matters.”