Wednesday 10 September 2014

September Council meeting...and those 'councillors questions'

Today's council meeting was the first of the autumn term. With around eighteen apologies for absence, quite a few had yet to make it back. Including Meryl, unless she was being kept busy with the press.... I've only mentioned a few points here, so for the whole thing tune into the archived webcast tomorrow. (11th Sept; Now archived here)

As usual the meeting kicked off with Bill Thomas (Lab) and Sian Caiach declaring their interests in planning matters. The interest is their ongoing objections to council planning policy in relation to the problem of pollution in the Burry Estuary. The EU Commission has recently directed that the UK government is in breach of policies to protect certain areas, and names specifically the Burry Estuary.

Also as usual, attempts were made to silence the two councillors who were spoiling the party with metaphorical buckets of raw sewage. What is more, as the meeting progressed, the Chair, Daff Davies (Ind), for reasons known only to himself, found Bill Thomas' principled stand increasingly hilarious. What a gent...

Towards the end of the meeting Cllr Caiach declared an interest in a planning committee report and responded to a critical statement from Kevin Madge who had just slated her for her stance over the pollution issue and planning policy. She was again silenced by both Cllr Madge and the Chair. When it was suggested she write to Cllr Madge, the chief executive can be clearly heard to say, sarcastically, "something to look forward to".
I remember, at the trial last year, Mr James remarking on letters of complaint from members of the public, he said that usually, after one letter, they give up. A quick deflection of criticism, not an early resolution to a problem, is considered a victory in County Hall.

Back to the meeting again and tributes were paid to the retiring Director of Social Services, Bruce McLernon. Uneventful aside from a brief faux pas from Exec Board Member Cllr Jane Tremlett who purred her thanks to the Director for taking them all through the good times and the bad. Forgetting momentarily that there are no 'bad times' when it comes to Carmarthenshire Council she quickly changed 'bad' to 'not so good'. Oops.

The misleading minutes of the previous full council meeting were then approved.

Next up were the changes to the constitution required by new legislation, (see shuffling the deck). Cllr Dole (Plaid) brought up the point that if the chief executive no longer had the power to scold and/or fire the Monitoring Officer or the head of Democratic Services, who would?

According to Linda Rees Jones, a 'Disciplinary Panel A' would have to be constituted if there was a disciplinary matter to be dealt with... Fortunately for her, her involvement in the libel indemnity scandal came under the old rules....

One of the new rules is that an interim appointment of a senior official can last no longer than twelve months. Cllr Caiach questioned this rule and, as an example, mentioned Ms Rees Jones' three year 'interim' status. The reply didn't divulge anything further on Linda's mysterious employment status nor it's apparent conflict with the new legislation.

The main event, for Caebrwyn, and which I enthusiastically mentioned last week, was the new slot for 'councillors questions'. It wasn't the content of the questions which was so important; it was the faint ray of hope that, in matters of transparency and scrutiny, things might have been changing for the better.

However, all hopes were quickly dashed as the carefully prepared bombshell was dropped that there would be no supplementary questions. That meant that once the (rigorously vetted) question was answered, that was it, no comebacks, no debate. Nothing.

Cllr Dole asked for clarification. The constitution allowed members of the public a supplementary (follow-up) question, but the position as regards to councillors was 'silent' but there was nothing in it to say they couldn't.

In every other public scenario it is usual for follow-up questions to be asked. The initial answer to a formal question will have always been prepared days earlier and, in normal democratic debate it is the follow-up which is the real question.

However, nothing is normal in County Hall and clearly Mr James and Ms Rees Jones had been burning the midnight oil over this. Linda started by saying it wasn't her fault, she'd 'inherited' the constitution. This was an odd statement given the number of time it's been changed. Anyway, because it didn't specifically say anything about supplementary questions, then they didn't exist.

Cllr Dole used a Shakespearean analogy to illustrate his point, referring to Shylock's demand for a pound of flesh, and that it was usually the villain who insisted on the letter of the law, eventually thwarted by the hero who argued for the spirit of the law.

The situation reminded me of the ban on public filming, the constitution was silent (and still is) on that too, but the 'silence' was conveniently interpreted to justify an arbitrary ban.

The situation clearly reminded Mark James of another scenario, not entirely unrelated to filming, and suggested that Emlyn Dole had missed his vocation and should be at the Bar of the High Court...
They had no choice, insisted our chief executive, they just had to stick to the letter of the law...
Unlike the libel indemnity then Mr James.

So with the constitution nicely interpreted to suit the chief executive, the monitoring officer and the Executive Board members, the charade continued.

The first was from Emlyn Dole who wanted reassurance that the final report from the WLGA review would come straight to full council. (see previous post). The Chair, known as the Elmer Fudd of local government, had been given a script to try and read informed Cllr Dole that the report would be coming in the next few weeks and that the WLGA panel may even present it to full council.
That was that. If Cllr Dole had anything else to say about it, he couldn't.

Alun Lenny's question was next and he asked whether Kevin Madge was ashamed over the recent introduction of Blue Badge charges considering his 2012 manifesto pledge to the contrary.
This was met with a lengthy, defensive Kev-style ramble revolving around the context of 'other authorities have done it so why can't we'.

Exec Board Member for Finance, Cllr Jeff Edmunds then gave quite a straight answer to Cllr Lenny who asked what had become of the £250,000 loan to the Llanelly House project which was supposed to be repaid sometime last year. Apparently, due to underlying financial concerns with the project, the loan had never been released.  Another odd statement given the basis on which of some of the money is dished out from County Hall...

Cllr Colin Evans, Exec Board Member for Bins then gave a surly response to the question over bin bags, insisting that if little old ladies struggled with putting their bags out at 5am then they could 'phone the council'. It was something like that anyway.

I was so stunned by the constitutional maneuverings of Mark and Linda I had to go and make coffee to revive myself. You'll have to check the archive for accuracy.

Lastly was Cllr Price's enquiry as to the cost of Mr Tim Kerr QC over the pension and libel indemnity. Kev's answer was brief; "£26, 872.80p".
No follow-up allowed.

Let's hope the WLGA panel comes up with a suitable recommendation. You'll remember that Sir David Lewis, lay member of the Audit Committee described the council's internal legal advice as "cavalier at best and incompetent at worst".

The meeting drifted on we learned, during the debate over the 10-year social housing/council house repair plan that Kev's much talked about council bungalows have gone £100,000 over budget. It was "slippage", apparently.

Cllr Lemon wondered why, given that offices built at North Dock, Llanelli were still empty after four years, the plan was to build even more on a brownfield site next door. Why not build affordable housing, he enquired. Er, we'll have another look was the half hearted response.

Most of the remainder of the meeting was taken up with an 'anonymous' comment which appeared in the minutes of the last Executive Board meeting when Welsh language policy in education had been discussed.

The offending Minute read; 'Whilst recognising the importance of securing the future of the Welsh language, concern was expressed that it should not become a barrier to attracting overseas investors'.

Despite angry demands from the Plaid group for the Executive Board Member who said it to own up and back the statement up with some evidence, none of them did and, well, Meryl wasn't there.

Cllr Darren Price asked for an expression of opinion to be recorded that council did not agree with this sentence and its sentiment. However, after further constitutional contortions from Mark and Linda, they decided that 'expression of opinion' was definitely not allowed. What a farce.

An anonymous comment and an unfounded allegation in the Executive Board Minutes...? What is the world coming to.

For all the rest, and there was quite a bit more, you'll have to watch the archive. For anyone local to Caebrwyn who wanted to see what their local councillors Tom and Ivor had to say on their behalf, don't bother. Their only contribution was to fill in the expenses claim.

All eyes will be turning to Pembrokeshire's Emergency Council meeting on Friday for the votes of no confidence and the possible suspension of Bryn Parry Jones.
The Pembrokeshire Herald has the latest.


Redhead said...

Well, at least we know for sure who is in control of the council - and it isn't the councillors!

Mrs Angry said...

Ah: sewage and slippage. We have a lot of that in Broken Barnet, too. Most unfortunate. We also have, or had, hard to tell now, a lot of highly paid long term 'interim' senior officers - so much in common!

caebrwyn said...

You are correct...

@Mrs Angry
Yes, most unfortunate, great care must be taken when entering the council Chamber.

Anonymous said...

Surely the issue isn't the limited charging for parking for blue badge holders, to be perfectly frank disabled drivers get free cars, free tax, free insurance and just about everything else free, why shouldn't they pay for one hours parking? They can probably afford it more easily than ordinary hard working people who get minimum wage and no discount for parking or anything else. Surely the issue should be that blue badges have been handed out like candy? Is it possible to do a head count on the number of Labour councillors who hold blue badges? I heard that the Executive Board and nearly all of the Labour councillors have blue badges, even the younger ones; if this is true then there should be an investigation. Where are the press? Caebrwyn we need an expose!!!