The Parish of St. Helier has barred a local lawyer from voting on behalf of around 50 residents at a crucial meeting on the new hospital highway tonight.
The Parish Assembly was called after Westmount residents signed a requête calling for a vote on whether parish land purchases and construction work on the main access route to the new hospital at Overdale should be halted until more detailed plans are received.
Due to covid restrictions, a limited number of individuals are able to attend in person, with other parishioners instead invited to register to attend online.
But many parishioners took to social media to complain of difficulties in registering for virtual attendance, with some reporting that no one answered the phone when they called the Town Hall and that they had not received replies to their emails.
CLICK TO ENLARGE: The full requête - a centuries-old mechanism allowing parishioners to force a Parish Assembly on matters important to them.
Some elderly islanders also expressed concerns that they did not have the correct technology to attend virtually and cast their vote.
Lawyer and Westmount resident Olaf Blakeley therefore offered to exercise Power of Attorney on behalf of anyone unable to vote - ranging from pensioners with no computer or those who cannot risk personal health by attending in person to individuals on shift work, such as those in the Emergency Services.
The law states that, when Power of Attorney is granted, an officer of the Royal Court can enter into contracts and run bank accounts of another individual on their behalf, among other items.
In this instance, the papers signed by around 50 parishioners and some companies - each with valid voting rights, which can be verified against the electoral register or ratepayers list - bound Advocate Blakeley to only exercise power in respect of voting at tonight's Parish Assembly.
Pictured: Some elderly St. Helier residents do not have access to computers or cannot use Zoom.
“It doesn’t give anyone any greater rights than if they were voting in person. The point is that the parish has said there can only be 24 people that attend and everyone else has to do it on Zoom, but there are plenty of people that don’t have computers or know how to use Zoom… In a sense, they’re being excluded so the idea of a Power of Attorney was to give somebody else - me, in effect - permission to vote on their behalf,” Advocate Blakeley said, noting that he was unaware of any law that would prevent this.
Advocate Blakeley informed the parish of the plan earlier this week, but no response was received until yesterday evening when it was confirmed that they would not be allowing him to vote on any parishioner’s behalf. The confirmation came after the deadline to register to attend via Zoom had expired, meaning that anyone who executed Powers of Attorney will now not be able to attend.
Asked by Express for the legal reason for this, Chief Executive Jason Turner said that, while the matter was considered “carefully”, the parish concluded that it does not have “the the power to accept votes in this manner.”
“We do not believe that any legislation specifically allows for votes at a Parish Assembly to be received in this way and to do so would, as far as we are aware, be unprecedented. Whilst there is no specific reference to voting by power of attorney, we do recognise that when considering voting at Parish Assemblies, the Working Party on Parish Assemblies report (2001) noted that ‘proxy or postal voting is not catered for under existing procedures and would certainly require amendment to existing legislation’,” he explained.
Pictured: The Parish decided not to allow Advocate Blakeley to represent the parishioners unable to vote, saying it could not find a legal provision in favour of doing so.
Mr Turner noted, however, that the Parish would retain the Powers of Attorney that Advocate Blakeley collected in its records “for the time being.”
The news is likely to be met with fury this morning.
Westmount resident and campaigner Tamara Vanmeggelen told Express just hours ahead of last night’s decision: “We will vigorously object to any eligible and valid Power of Attorney that is not accepted by the Parish as an undemocratic and improper voter suppression on the potential sale of Parish land to the government for the unnecessary and ruinous proposal for the hospital site road access.
“[Deputy Chief Minister Senator Lyndon Farnham] promised the States Assembly on 1 February to seriously consider the ‘do nothing’ option as set out in the government’s report and we will be holding him to account on that promise. Accordingly, this Parish Assembly is an important part of ensuring no Parish land deals can be negotiated without the Parishioners prior approval.”
Mr Turner, however, maintained that “the Parish takes democratic participation in Parish Assemblies very seriously and actively promotes attendance and engagement throughout the year. We are keen to ensure that all parishioners are able to participate in Parish Assemblies.
“The Parish has made every effort possible to enable parishioners to attend the Parish Assembly in person and on-line in the challenging circumstances of the current pandemic. The Constable is proactively seeking reform in this area to ensure that more Parishioners have an opportunity to express their views and vote on important matters such as this.”
The meeting will be taking place online and in the Town Hall at 19:00 tonight.
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