ADVICE against Middlewich’s community mayor project was dismissed on two occasions before the plug was eventually pulled on it, a town council report has revealed.

At the first meeting following last May’s election, Middlewich Town Council agreed to set up the community mayor role to celebrate stalwarts of the community – with the chairman of the council no longer holding the position as before.

Dave Roberts, honorary president of the Mid Cheshire Rail Link campaign, was named Middlewich’s first community mayor a month later.

Middlewich Town Council then confirmed fundraiser Linda Boden as the town’s deputy community mayor in October – meaning she would replace Mr Roberts in 2020-21.

But the project was axed last month following advice from auditors that the position of community mayor could not be legally created.

Now, a report attached to the agenda for Monday’s town council meeting explaining how the position came to be scrapped suggests that advice not to set the scheme up from the Cheshire Association of Local Councils (CHALC) was twice overlooked.

The report says that last May, following the first town council meeting since the local elections, CHALC’s advice said that the post of community mayor could be created as ‘an office in name only’ with no power or voting rights.

However, the advice suggested that there would be ‘no provision for that post to represent Middlewich’ because it ‘will not have been voted on in any formal sense’.

CHALC’s spokesman added: “The true representative of ‘Middlewich’ is the one elected by the people through the ballot box – i.e. a councillor and thereby by the council i.e. the mayor. I do not think I can make this any clearer.”

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Middlewich Town Council’s report states that Jonathan Williams, former town clerk, advised the council that it ‘could proceed with the appointment of the community mayor and sought no further advice’ before Mr Roberts was appointed.

Winsford Guardian:

Dave Roberts agrees to become community mayor at last June's Middlewich Town Council meeting

Further advice was then received in October 2019, following Mr Williams’ death and prior to Mrs Boden’s appointment.

CHALC told the council that ‘the title of mayor is granted by the Sovereign, usually through acts of Parliament’ – and that while the chairman of the council is legally entitled to hold the role.

On setting up a community mayor, CHALC said: “Middlewich Town Council has no right to usurp the Sovereign’s prerogative to grant the title of mayor to anyone.

“This individual appears to have no lawful role in carrying out the functions of the council and any payment to them is likely to be ultra vires [beyond the law], as the council has no legal basis for paying them anything.”

But on October 21, the advice was challenged by Middlewich Town Council and Mrs Boden’s appointment was later confirmed.

The council then received further advice against the role from CHALC in November and December – highlighting potential tax issues surrounding the payment of expenses to a community mayor.

In that advice, CHALC’s spokesman said: “As you will have guessed I don't think this is a particularly good idea. I wouldn't do it. There are other ways to honour members of the community.”

A solicitor from the National Association of Local Councils also wrote to CHALC expressing concern ‘that the council has continued to operate in such a manner despite advice’.

Meanwhile, auditor JD Henry recommended that the council ‘should review the guidance it has received from national bodies and urgently revisit the decision to appoint, and pay expenses to, a community and deputy community mayor’.

Middlewich Town Council considered the advice in full in part two of the December 16 meeting, away from the press and public, before agreeing to ‘accept and progress all recommendations in the internal audit report’ – including on the community mayor.

The situation was explained to Mr Roberts on Friday, January 10, in a meeting with Cllr Helen Watkinson, chairman of the council’s internal committee, and interim town clerk Lisa Benskin.

An offer was made for him to carry out a separate role as a community ambassador, but Mr Roberts decided to resign from the post on Monday, January 13, with Mrs Boden following on Thursday, January 16.

Town councillors are due to discuss the circumstances surrounding the community mayor role and its future at Monday night’s meeting.

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In a statement issued last month, a town council spokesman said: “Whilst advice was sought in the set-up of the role and the councillors acted in good faith in doing so, the auditor advised that unfortunately it was not possible for the town council to legally create the role of community mayor.

“Subsequent advice has been received from the sectors professional bodies which supports this view and as a result the project in its current format must cease.”