Monday, 29 October 2012

Leader's letter in Western Mail - a response to my letter

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an open email to the Minister for Local Government, Carl Sargeant (Lab) which was published in the Western Mail. It concerned the entry procedures to the council's public gallery, in particular the insistence that a 15 yr old boy sign the 'undertaking'. The letter was published along with a response from a 'Welsh government spokesperson' who said that entry procedures were a matter for individual councils. (Western Mail link here 'Plea to Minister over 'appalling' council' 17th October)

Today's Western Mail has published a letter from council leader Kevin Madge (Lab) in response to mine, well, he's put his name to it anyway.

Here's the letter and I've added my comments in red;

Public are welcome at council meetings

SIR – I was surprised at the recent letter from Mrs Thompson (Oct 17) [where she referred to what she described as “the unwelcoming, undemocratic, and unlawful entry restrictions to Carmarthenshire council’s public gallery”] regarding the fact that when members of the public attend council meetings they have to sign an undertaking that they agree to abide by the rules governing those meetings.

Mrs Thompson well knows that the recent introduction of a requirement to read and agree the rules before going into the meeting was only introduced because two meetings were disrupted by herself. Prior to this we have never had to have such a requirement.

As I have made very clear over the past year or so, I strongly dispute the various statements that I disrupted any meetings at all. The dictionary definition of 'disrupt' is 'to interrupt the usual course of a process or activity'. I cannot understand how quietly filming a council meeting amounts to disruption. I'll not comment further on that at the moment.

I'm sure Cllr Madge is experienced enough to realise that the 'rules governing those meetings' are the Standing Orders, in which there is no mention whatsoever of filming or recording meetings, let alone a rule against it.

I was not aware of a 15-year-old being asked to sign in to the meeting, which Mrs Thompson claims. As it was a school day, I would find this surprising.

However, we would not expect people under 16 to sign this undertaking.

I am surprised that Cllr Madge is unaware that he was required to sign, as this is the second time this has happened, the first being in in January when the boy was 14. On both occasions the mother made his age very clear to the staff at reception, they then contacted officers by phone to clarify that he had to sign and they confirmed that he did.
The mother of the 15 year old left a comment on my previous post and I have since been made aware that her son is registered home educated. 

The background to this matter is, of course, the filming of council meetings.

I think Mrs Thompson also knows that one of the commitments of the new council, following my appointment as leader is to have a pilot project to broadcast our meetings via the council website, which I hope will start shortly.

Yes I am aware, although 'commitment' is something of an overstatement. I think the word 'begrudging' is more accurate;
"Whilst we are anxious not to waste local taxpayer’s money with frivolous or perceived populist ideas, we will shortly receive the findings of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee review of E-Government which is recommending that the council trial the filming and webcasting of Council meetings. Such a pilot would enable us to judge whether there is a genuine interest across the County with ordinary members of the public, rather than single campaigners" (from the Forward Work Programme)

As I have reported the pilot will consist of recording full council meetings, editing the material and uploading onto the website, somewhat missing the point. I do however look forward to the Executive Board approving the recent amendment to allow the public to film meetings...

Members of the public are welcome to all of our meetings and I would dearly love to see many more of them coming along. The date and time of all our meetings are advertised and we would welcome anyone who chooses to attend.

This goes for meetings of the executive board, the “cabinet” of the council, as much as for the monthly council meeting.

Since becoming leader I have introduced a new approach where the executive board takes its meetings around the county to make it easier for people to attend, to see how decisions are made and how the council works. So far we have been to Ammanford and Kidwelly and the next two venues will be Llandeilo and Whitland.

Following these meetings we have also started having informal sessions where local representatives are invited in, not to listen to the meeting but to contribute their thoughts and have a dialogue with us, and this is an approach we are planning to develop further in the coming months.

I think that anyone who knows me will know that it is very much in my nature to hear other people’s opinions and listen to their point of view.

It is a personal commitment of mine that the council should be as open and transparent as we can possibly make it.

I am disappointed that Mrs Thompson’s letter gives an impression that we are unwelcoming to people who would like to come to our meetings.

Nothing could be further from the truth and I hope that no-one will be deterred by the rather one-sided view given in her letter. We would love to see you.

Leader, Carmarthenshire County Council
(link to Western Mail letters page here)

The remainder of Cllr Madge's letter ask us to 'feel the love'; I haven't felt it yet. Neither have I seen nor heard anything remotely committed to openness and transparency. The well publicised Executive Board trips to the outback, safely ensconced in the Jags and BMW's, appear to be nothing more than photo opportunities, providing enough pictures of grinning executive councillors and press releases to fill several editions of the Carmarthen Journal...


Martin Milan said...

This is hilarious...

Perhaps Mr. Madge would like to comment on people being escorted, one officer in front and one behind, into the public gallery?

Perhaps he'd like to comment on people being LOCKED in the public gallery?

"The Rules" for the meeting are actually, as Jacqui points out, the standing orders. The signed undertaking has nothing to do with those, but some of us enterprising souls have taken the trouble to read them regardless. Jacqui is correct - they don't even mention, much less prohibit, filming.

If Mr. Madge is so committed to openness and transparency, perhaps he would like to comment on precisely how members of the public filming proceedings is such a bad thing? Don't waste my time with the argument that things will be edited and presented out of context though - because you yourselves plan to edit your videos... Personally, that's a task I would rather trust to Jacqui than anyone over at the council.


Anonymous said...

I think you should start advertising the meetings, encourage others to see and judge the democracy and transparency level themselves.
Of course it's a very personally written letter with no desire for transparency by Councillor Madge, old fashioned assurances rule.

Anonymous said...

I can feel a right of reply coming on ???????? Please J write to Western Mail putting record straight.

Anonymous said...

Depressingly disappointing how he brushes aside the incident of the 15 year old attending a meeting. Doubly so as he shows no interest in following it up.

Mrs Angry said...

Perceived populism, eh? That'll never catch on, will it?

What absolute arrogance this man exhibits. When will these people remember that they are in office to serve the community, and not to dictate to residents the limits of their involvement in the democratic process?

caebrwyn said...

Thanks for your comments.

I have thought of advertising meetings, but with the council having one of the largest PR departments in Welsh local authorities perhaps it's something they should be doing, if they're that 'committed'.

Anyway, I think I might reply to Mr Madge.

towy71 said...

Cllr. Madge beloved leader of the ruling clique in Carmarthenshire County Council is being disingenuous when he says the people have to sign an undertaking to abide by the rules when attending "public" meetings of the Council; I have tried several times to get in but refuse to sign such an undertaking as neither Chris Burns (assistant Chief Executive) or Colin Davies "Democratic Services Manager" could tell me which rule in the Council's Standing Orders are being used.

Cneifiwr said...

This letter is so disingenuous, it is hard to know where to begin. Anyone going to a meeting of the Executive Board to see how decision are taken will be bitterly disappointed, as the meetings are usually short, and all the decisions are taken behind closed doors before the meeting begins.

As for the "welcome", perhaps Cllr Madge and some of the other councillors should try to attend a meeting as members of the public (wearing a false beard perhaps). No other council in Wales or probably Britain puts visitors through such a humuliating and intimidating entry procedure.