Strabane District Council has confirmed it is to consider banning the public and Press from committee meetings, sparking public and media fury.
Amid warnings of a dangerous precedent being set, the council is now examining whether to restrict open council business to the monthly gatherings of the full council.
The move is being looked at as part of a wider review of council business, and was discussed at a recent private meeting by senior council staff and party leaders.
Details of the proposals have since been leaked, and it is understood that among the reasons given for the move is that some councillors are reluctant to speak their minds freely in front of the Press and the public during committee meetings.
The council yesterday claimed that closing its doors will actually lead to the disclosure of more information for the Press and public in the lead-up to and during full council meetings.
Council leaders said it was part of a move to greater transparency and will bring into the public arena much of the business which is currently discussed at confidential level by the various committees (after the Press and public have been asked to leave).
The proposal has sparked public fury. Prominent Strabane community worker Andy Gallagher said local people were totally stunned by the proposal.
Mr Gallagher, who is chairman of the Carlton Drive Community Association and vice-chair of the Melmount Community Forum, said that it has only served to heighten suspicions among local people about why they would be excluded from any meetings.
He said: “It is absolutely disgraceful. The people of Strabane have a right to know how their money is being spent. This will do nothing but diminish the faith in the people we have elected to carry out the democratic process. It does nothing for democracy.”
Conor Sharkey, a journalist with the Strabane Chronicle, also expressed his unease.
“When I heard about this it came as a shock to me,” he said.
“I hope that the 15 councillors will look at this and see that this is not the way forward.”
Daniel McSorley, interim chief executive of the council, said: “Officials have been tasked to examine a range of options with the objective of creating more effective committee meetings, and creating more openness and transparency in council business.”