KEY parish decisions could be put to residents in local referendums in future under proposals currently being explored by the Constables’ Committee.
The move, intended to address low turnout at some parish assemblies, would allow ratepayers to express their views on important parish matters without having to attend a formal meeting – perhaps by casting a vote on another occasion at the parish hall, or by postal ballot.
Constable Deidre Mezbourian, who chairs the Constables’ Committee, declined to comment in detail on the proposals, which she said were currently under discussion but she confirmed that they were ‘investigating proposals to extend the remit of the parish assembly to make it more democratic’.
‘This is welcomed by the comité because it is viewed as an opportunity to increase participation in parish affairs,’ she said.
Currently parish decisions, whether relating to specific issues facing the municipality or to the election of parish officials, are taken at formal parish assemblies. However, concerns have been expressed that this may not be the most effective way of gauging ratepayers’ views.
St Helier Constable Simon Crowcroft, who is also the vice-chairman of the committee, said that low turnout could make it possible for ‘vested interests to take over the democratic process’.
He said that it was important that significant decisions could be put to a wider selection of people by means of what he called ‘a referendum, effectively’.
‘[It] would be much better than seven o’clock on a cold and wet Wednesday evening when you might have 25 people in the parish hall. That is not good for democracy.
‘A lot of people are not going to come out, whereas they [could have] the chance to vote by post or by popping a ballot paper into the Town Hall for an important item,’ he said.
Legal advice is currently being taken on the proposals in order to develop draft legislation. Mr Crowcroft said that he believed that the changes would be formalised in due course. They have particular significance in his own parish, where Mr Crowcroft is due to put proposals to establish a town council – or conseil municipal – to parishioners on 9 March.
Because he must operate under the existing decision-making process, he is obliged to secure approval to advance the plans from those ratepayers who attend the assembly that evening. But his deeper concern is that the long-term success of a flourishing council requires electoral processes that encourage a range of experienced parishioners to participate.
‘The success of [the council] does depend on getting this bigger franchise through. I need this ability to get more of the people of St Helier voting on subjects and I need that sooner rather than later,’ he said.