I didn't think meetings of Carmarthenshire Council could get any worse but this meeting showed plenty of scope for further decline.
The undertakings have gone, which is something, though not surprising given that the Ombudsman is currently sniffing round the corridors of County Hall. And the fire exit is now open. Visitors now have to go to this door to get in, which was the original entrance, but with the little handles carefully removed, they have to knock and hope someone comes in time for the start of the meeting. The member of staff (only one!) escorts the rabble up the stairs where what appears to be a security guard is now positioned near the door with a clipboard for everyone to sign in and out. The guard remained there for the duration and came and sat in the gallery. Just in case of..er...whatever.
The Chairs announcements included praise for the Dyfed Pension Fund, who had won some sort of obscure award. There was much praise (of course) from various councillors and much encouragement for even more of them to take up the scheme, it was a fantastic deal with splendid perks. Not so fantastic for the taxpayers though who fork out many thousands of pounds every year in contributions.
The main event, for me anyway, was the vote on filming. I naively expected this to be a simple matter of voting on the Plaid leader's Motion to allow the public to film. Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths presented the motion and Cllr Alun Lenny seconded it.
Both Councillors spoke very well putting forward the case for public filming perfectly. Cllr Griffiths was astounded that after eighteen months the 'Task and Finish group' had 'forgotten' to look at this issue, but reminded everyone that it now had cross-party support despite being kicked out by the Executive Board.
The Chamber was reminded of the ruling Labour group's Forward Work programme (described by the Leader, Kevin Madge as 'exciting') which promised to 'promote transparency' and 'ensure that the council is open and transparent in everything we do'. Evidence was quoted from where public filming is already allowed, and the 'encouragement' from Carl Sargeant and guidance from Eric Pickles quoted. It would help restore the council's reputation for opaque decision making, they said.
To those worried about 'selective editing' they were reminded that this is already happens in the media and the council minutes. The proposed filming pilot would also be edited. And if they were all honest, what was there to hide? what were they worrying about?
That's were it all went horribly and predictably wrong. Cllr Madge rose and presented an amendment to the motion. This was to not
allow the public to film. Cllr Griffiths tried to challenge the amendment as they are not allowed to 'go against' the original Motion, but Kev's amendment had clearly been passed through the bowels of the legal department first. The addition of 'we may look at this again in a hundred years when we may or may not see how the pilot goes' (or words to that effect) was apparently sufficient for the Monitoring Officer for it to be acceptable. What a surprise.
The 'debate' then started to get really bizarre. Kev was 'not prepared to let people in the public gallery use filming for political means'; it would go against their equalities policy as only half the Chamber could be filmed from the gallery and there were serious health and safety issues because people would be leaning over the balcony and may fall, the last one was from Pam Palmer.
By now Peter Hughes Griffiths and his supporters were almost as speechless as I was, he couldn't believe that members were challenging this motion and trying to "wrangle" their way out of supporting it. You can see how this council operates, he said, Labour and independents coming together to throw this out, shameful but not surprising. Cllr Lenny hit the nail on the head and called it control freakery.
Cllr Darren Price (Plaid) then spoke and said it was a joke and out of order. There had been cross party support (apart from Cllr Giles Morgan (Ind) who was not in favour of transparency). This was all about the rights of the public and the ratepayers and a lot more needed to be done. Why weren't there ever any public questions? Or even an allotted spot for either public questions or the presentation of petitions?. He reminded Kev of his recent letter in the Western Mail encouraging 'public engagement'.
Then the opponents came back. Cllr Higgins (Lab), the youngest councillor, who you might have thought had a more open attitude spoke against it. Then Cllr Bill Thomas who fretted about editing and public safety again.
Next up was Cllr Tegwen Devichand (Lab) who much to everyone's surprise declared that 'under no circumstances are we changing Kev as our Leader', she must have zoned out for a few minutes because no one had even mentioned that Kev needed replacing. Only a matter of time perhaps.
Cllrs Gwyn Hopkins, Hazel Evans and Dai jenkins all then spoke in favour.
Cllr Jeff Edmunds (Lab) Executive Board Member for Money then rambled on for a while supporting Kev. Of course, all the opponents were in favour of transparency as long as it was under the tightly censored control of the council.
Then it was time for the vote. By now it was the amendment not to film
which had to be voted on, not
the original Motion. A recorded vote was taken with 23 voting for transparency (against the motion) and 41 wishing to keep you in the dark. The details of who voted for what will appear in the minutes, eventually. Residents in Caebrwyn's locality might be interested to know that those two stalwarts of community spirit, 'independent' Cllrs Ivor Jackson and Tom Theophilus voted to keep things away from the prying eyes of their voters.
With 64 voting, and only 4 or 5 having sent their apologies, a handful must have gone AWOL.
The stage managed procedural nonsense continued as the 'amendment' now became the 'substantive' motion which meant that Cllr Griffith's motion to film, had now completely disappeared.
The discussion continued. More Plaid Councillors expressed disbelief in what was happening. Cllr Gwyneth Thomas said she had been waiting 20 years for the council to become more transparent; another said that the amendment had been drawn up to prevent democratic development. Plaid's Darren Price wondered what had happened and, more to the point, what had been said in the two months since this had been given cross-party support? What were they afraid of? The mind boggles.
A quote of the day from Kev was next; "No one can accuse this council of being undemocratic and not transparent" and waffled on about the all expenses paid Executive Board trips to the outposts of Ammanford and Llandeilo. Dear god.
Pam Palmer was in devilish mode by now with one eye on the public gallery she said that by allowing the public to film, it would be taking control off the people
. I felt like crying. People in the gallery, she seethed, could do very clever editing, I hope she wasn't referring to me because I can't. Blogs, someone spat, were picked up around the world. I think that comment said quite a lot.
Plaid continued to try and reason with the dark forces and asked when exactly this long awaited pilot would be starting, apparently Carl Sargeant had recently said there would be funding available for it. This brought the Chief Executive in who said that Mr Sargeant hadn't quite said that and actually he had no idea how they would budget for it - Caebrwyn decided that the £20,000 they'd just given (behind closed doors) to the Odeon (net worth £2bn) would have covered it. It would probably come up at the budget meeting he said.
A supporter said that cost shouldn't be an issue for this and, anyway, weren't the BBC 'selective'? Or any other official media source? Which brought Mr James back in with 'your not suggesting the press are selective in the way they report on us are you?' I think this was meant to be a joke but after that morning's front page of the South Wales Guardian
The final vote now had to be taken on the 'amendment', there was no point asking for it to be recorded and it went through. So any further mentions of public filming will only be after the pilot, for which there wasn't any money anyway. In other words, that was that.
To say the whole thing was a highly contrived and a carefully choreographed exercise in procedural b*****s would be an understatement.
And just be clear, in case of confusion, the vote went against
allowing the public to film.
Although I was beginning to lose the will to live, I stayed a bit longer to see whether anyone would bring up any of the recent embarrassing ombudsman reports during the report from the Standards Committee. Of course not. Kev did his usual tributes and, amazingly, my own local member Cllr Theophilus spoke, there was a hushed silence for this rare occurrence as he said how upsetting it was to be reported to the ombudsman, it had happened to him several times, he'd been a councillor for 200 years and served under 24 Chief Executives (it went something like that, I couldn't quite catch it), it really shouldn't be allowed. Exec Board Member Colin Evans said that claiming money to try and clear your name was a 'hot potato' at the moment, it was costing thousands to defend allegations. I'm not sure what point he was trying to make and neither did he by the sound of it.
A discussion on the evils of gambling came up, one of Pam Palmer's favourites, and someone suggested a letter to Westminster and Cardiff was in order about the adverts which tempt the poor to part with their money. Pam Palmer's moral outrage continued and she said that had already been done, a letter had been sent by the Executive Board on behalf of the entire council. Someone raised the question that, even though they agreed with the sentiment, were the Exec Board entitled to send letters on everyone's behalf without everyone else knowing? Oops...er not really..but never mind eh?
Before long the timeless discussion on public toilets came up which the council have decided to close in April. Various councillors tried to say that Community councils didn't have the resources to take them over. Executive Board Member for Toilets, Cllr Evans began a very lengthy detailed speech about the efficiency savings and that closure was the only option. He went on for so long the Chair had to ask him to sit down..
There was a brief interlude to the toilet discussion when Cllr Lemon again asked the Chief Executive when the new school for Seaside would be built. He had the same answer as he'd had several times before - because the residents didn't want to build on the council's 'preferred site' they'd slipped waaaay down the list. So there.
With the conversation returning to toilets I'd had enough and left.
During all this Meryl managed to fit in a half hour eulogy to the 'best council in Wales' on BBC Radio Wales. Perhaps some wag should have issued a statement to say that this wasn't actually the case, and their contributor was 'spreading untruths' and had an 'agenda'. It's what they would have done.....and did
I wondered what the public at large would have made of it all had the council meeting been webcast live, one thing is certain, there would have been no need for clever editors to make those particular proceedings look like something from another dimension. The row of senior officers, almost completely silent of course, was a sight in itself.
And I suppose, and lest ye forget, (and despite the vote), there still is no rule in the Standing Orders against filming council meetings. Not yet anyway.
As I mentioned previously, Unison staged a protest on the steps of County Hall yesterday calling for the Living Wage. There was no mention whilst I was in the meeting, notably not from Labour Members. After I went it cropped up and the SW Evening Post has the story here
. The Plaid leader Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths said that the council ought to be ashamed of itself, and Cllr Lenny (Plaid) said “Is Kevin Madge, as a socialist, is he embarrassed — even ashamed — that his administration is not prepared to pay staff enough, that they live on state benefits?”
The paper also reports that staff at the Welsh Assembly will all now be paid the Living Wage.