A vote for meetings of the Littlehampton Harbour Board to exclude the public and the press has been branded a ‘travesty of justice’.
The harbour board receives £300,000 a year from the taxpayer. But on Monday, December 2, the board voted by five votes to four to hold all future meetings in private.
Arun District Council leader James Walsh, a former harbour board chairman and a current member, said it was a ‘shocking and totally undemocratic decision’.
But the harbour board said the move was in line with many other port authorities and to stop ‘censorship of board discussions’.
Robert Boyce, owner of Littlehampton’s shipyard and Littlehampton Yacht Club, is a former vice-chairman of the board and has been a vocal critic of the current administration.
He described the move as ‘absolutely abysmal’: “It is a complete travesty of justice. The harbour board relies on contributions from the public and its stakeholders.
“The very people that they are supposed to support and in whose best interests in law they are obliged to act have been excluded from the meetings they should be able to attend.”
Dr Walsh said the harbour board raises an annual levy of around £300,000 from West Sussex County Council and Arun District Council.
He said: “Its decisions on fees and charges for moorings, together with its responsibility for safe navigation in the river and harbour are of legitimate public concern and interest.
“In my view it goes without saying that its meetings, discussions and decisions should be as open, transparent and accessible as possible. Secret meetings always breed a culture of suspicion, lack of trust, and bad public perception.
“I argued against it at the board, and the closeness of the vote shows there is certainly not strong or full backing for this ill-conceived decision.”
He added that the harbour board was about to consult the public on a move to cut the current eight members appointed by Arun and the county council down to four.
There are 11 members in total. He said this would ‘further slash the democratic legitimacy and accountability’ of the board and he urged the public to make their feelings known to the councils.
Dr Walsh, also the Liberal Democrat leader of the opposition at the county council, said he would speak to council leader Paul Marshall about what ‘joint action’ they could take.
A board spokesman said it was under no legal duty to hold board meetings in public and that a ‘vast number of organisations’, including ‘nearly all trust ports’ and governing bodies of state-funded schools, did not either.
They added that the board ‘continued to comply fully’ with the Ports Good Governance Guidance, issued by the Department for Transport in 2018, ‘in respect of transparency’ and would continue to publish non-confidential board minutes and an annual report, hold an annual general meeting and meet with a ‘new stakeholder group’ so they could have input into decision making.
The move was to stop board discussions being ‘heavily diverted’ to the needs of a ‘very small number of people’ that attended and asked the ‘vast majority’ of public questions, the spokesman added.