Monday, 19 August 2013

Ombudsman reports, councillor emails...still in the long grass

The minutes of a recent Policy and Resources scrutiny meeting (July 31st) have just been published and contained within are a couple of good examples of how to kick uncomfortable and embarrassing issues into the long grass. Fortunately there must be a couple of councillors, of the more determined variety, trying to keep it at a manageable length.

Minutes of meetings always state something along the lines of; 'Responding to a question, the [relevant officer] informed the committee...' So the reader must deduce from the response what exactly the question might have been. At the previous meeting (29th May), the minutes record that 'Reference was made to Ombudsman reports and the process for reporting the outcomes. The Committee requested further information outlining the current process'.
The issue, in general, of ombudsman reports and the council's determination that they never see the light of day has been ongoing. Delyth Jenkins' case and the Breckman report being two notable examples.

So, has the acting Head of Law, Mrs Rees Jones, decided that all ombudsman reports and recommendations be made available for scrutiny by councillors? Well, she's got as far as drafting a report 'outlining' their role so I suppose that's something. Will the report go to the scrutiny committee? Er, no, it will be 'considered by the Business Management Group in September'.

The BMG doesn't publish agendas so we will not be privy to their consideration. (I have made a request for the minutes of their meetings, long delayed and now further delayed as Kev, Pam etc have to consider my request as well). They do act with consistency though and have never been known to reject anything put in front of them by the Chief Executive's Department for subsequent approval by the Executive Board.

In other words, it's not really a draft.

There was a little more to this though, and of course one favourite way of removing all trace of unwelcome discussions from un-recorded meetings is to omit any reference whatsoever to it in the minutes. When it came to approving the last meeting's minutes, from the 29th May, someone, fortunately, piped up.

There had been a discussion about the Ombudsman's findings against Kevin Madge, Leader of the Council, over the 'Sainsbury's press release' and this had not been minuted. The ombudsman had, you may remember, found that Mr Madge had breached the Code of Conduct by misusing the press office to attack the two Plaid politicians. The politicians also seriously questioned the role of senior council officers in the offending publication, see Sainsbury's row heats up and other posts.
During this un-minuted discussion, further information had been requested;
'relating to the process followed and officer involvement in preparing and agreeing the press release'.

Mr Burns, one of the Assistant Chief Executives, realised that if the minutes were going to be amended to include this discussion, he ought to mention that as he 'managed the council's press office', (surely you didn't still think that the 'Press Office Manager' managed the press office did you?) he had a declarable interest. Something he clearly didn't declare at the meeting. A 'retrospective' declaration then....

Unfortunately, the (most recent) minutes do not record whether the 'further information' concerning 'officer involvement' was ever going to be forthcoming, only that the previous minutes would be amended.

Observers of the council meeting webcast in June (still available on archive) will remember the heated discussion over the tracking of Councillors' emails. Specifically, of course was the case involving Cllr Caiach.
As the meeting had been filmed there was no denying that the 'debate' had ever happened, or that the Chief Executive, Mr James, had promised to provide a report to the scrutiny committee. It couldn't be omitted from the minutes.
The scrutiny committee must have asked for an update because Mrs Rees Jones has been busy drafting again and a 'report in relation to the members’ e-mails' would be made available to the committee. Date not specified. (I wonder if it will include correction of the misleading information given to full council; see Yesterday's webcast...almost home and dry. I doubt it).

Concerns were also raised about the lack of Welsh translation of press releases on the council website. Mr Burns explained that, as manager of the press office, he had insufficient resources and that 'the majority of press releases were prepared for the local press and there was not much appetite for welsh language versions'. (my italics).
I don't think that will wash with Y Cneifiwr.

Lastly, during a discussion about a £186,000 overspend by Technical Services, the minutes record that .may be partly to blame. Perhaps someone should tell them that its far better to be tankering the effluent away rather than tinkering with it. Applies across the board really.

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