Hopefully some of you occasionally click the blog links on the right hand side of this page. If you haven't already, I suggest you have a look at the Barnet bloggers, notably Mrs Angry's and Mr Mustard's. They, along with others in the London borough set something of an example to the rest of us about the role of citizens bringing the local authority to account. The similarities with Carmarthenshire Council have often been noted and it has been suggested that a twinning arrangement could be set up whereby senior officers and members could exchange positions for a week or two to bring each other up to date with the latest methods of withholding information and avoiding scrutiny by members of the public.
Of course Barnet has a slight difficulty in that it is beholden to publish spending details over £500 and, under the English Public Audit Act, has to provide an inspection period every year for the electorate to view all the accounts. Carmarthenshire council, of course, doesn't have to worry about any of that nonsense, no spending details are published and the last inspection period was a couple of years ago - maybe there will be one this year, I don't know. (I have emailed the Council to ask, I'm eagerly awaiting their reply and a personal invitation to inspect). Not that Barnet is any more welcoming to armchair auditors than our friends down the road and their recent trip to study the accounts (remember this includes receipts, invoices etc) was reminiscent of a trip to view the register of member's interests undertaken by 'Mrs T' last year.(see The Sacred Parchments)
Also reminiscent is the way the Barnet bloggers were treated, rather like suspected terrorists, being marched around the building and escorted to the loo and back as well as being faced with material which was so redacted it was unreadable. A few week's ago a lady was ordered to leave a Barnet council meeting for filming the proceedings by an overly secretive Chair who had momentarily forgotten that such basic democratic rights were now welcome in the Chamber (credit for this move also goes to the bloggers).
All sounds very familiar doesn't it? Of course we have a few added extras here such as the sudden necessity for visitors to the public gallery to provide their names and addresses which serves no other purpose than to enable Carmarthenshire Council officers to monitor who's observing proceedings and of course the escorted march to the gallery.
Here's an email from the Head of Legal to one of the Assistant Chief Execs dated 9th June 2011 (the day after the #daftarrest);
"I'd appreciate a chat about the steps which will need to be taken to ensure that Mrs Thompson [that's me, middle aged lady with phone] is not allowed to gain access past the card entry point leading up to the Council gallery. I've discussed with Colin [Democratice Services Manager] and hopefully this is something which reception staff, working with Colin and possibly caretaking staff can manage between them. I've discussed these measures with the Police (they came to see me yesterday afternoon) who can assist in case of difficulty. We will also need to close the side door to County Hall nearest the castle because it gives direct access to the gallery. Mark suggests we limit that to Council and Planning committee days"
Of course by the following meeting, the officer-only 'operational decisions' bits of paper to sign etc were all neatly in place.
When it comes to releasing information, Carmarthenshire is particularly reluctant to divulge it's secrets, my recent request for correspondence between the Council and the Towy Community Church was refused because it would 'exceed the cost limit' - I've asked again, and had to narrow my request due to the apparent enormous volume of material. I could have argued that £1.4m of taxpayers money to build an evangelical bowling alley exceeded the cost limit as well, but I didn't bother. Other requests which have 'exceeded the cost limit' have included release of spending details. I don't think Carmarthenshire council quite 'get's' the whole concept of public accessibility to information.
The issue of the cost of answering Freedom of Information requests is something of a hot topic at the moment and I read an interesting tale from Nottingham Council over the weekend where a couple of council leaders were screeching about the enormous cost (Nottingham Council is also the only council in England not to publish it's spending details), alarming figures of £500k and £600k were bandied about which, (it goes without saying) prompted a Freedom of Info request. The actual cost, it transpired, was around £64,000 a year. The Nottingham response is interesting as it appears that the same amount of time is spent on Case Administration as is spent on Reputation Impact Assessment, the latter always being the overriding priority here in Carmarthenshire. I think I may have to ask our own County Hall for their FoI figures and costs but a refusal is always possible on the grounds of national security...or something, it would be interesting to compare the figures with the budget for the Council's over productive Department of Spin.
Read the Nottigham tale (with a link to the FoI response) here; http://davidhiggerson.wordpress.com/2012/07/08/using-foi-to-challenge-claims-about-the-cost-of-foi/
Update 10th July
Regarding Carmarthenshire Council's figures for FoI and PR, I have now asked (through FoI); http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/foi_and_pr_costs