Carmarthenshire Council's recent foray into public question time at meetings has, to put it politely, been a bit hit and miss. Until a year or so ago it was unheard of for the great unwashed to enter the sanctity of the Chamber, let alone have the whole thing broadcast to the nation. Yesterday's meeting of the Executive Board was no exception.
The agenda included a raft of questions concerning the council's proposal to change the language category of Llangennech schools to Welsh medium. Members of the public from both sides of the argument were present. The issues have been well publicised in the local press and, it has been suggested, have become somewhat politicised and locally divisive. For the record, I'm taking no sides with this one, merely commenting on the process.
The questions, which are all on the agenda as they have to be submitted well in advance, were all addressed of course to the executive board member for education, Cllr Gareth Jones (Plaid).
The meeting started with the announcement that Cllr Jones was not there.
According to the Chair, Cllr Dole, this absence had been arranged some time ago. It's not clear when the questioners were told but they had taken time off work to attend and were given to understand (they'd checked the constitution) they would be able to ask the all important supplementary question.
However, it just so happened that the Director of Education, Mr Rob Sully was present with pre-prepared responses and as the executive board councillor was absent, the Chair decided that he would not subject the Director to any supplementary questions from the public.
The Chair has this discretion of course and given the strength of feeling, and the political aspect, perhaps it was fair enough (mind you, on a salary of £135k per annum you'd think the Director would be up to batting around a few questions from the hoi polloi).
This arrangement, prompted by the absence of the councillor, gave casual observer the impression of the usual stage-management.
Eventually, after the usual dithering about, and ever-conscious of the webcams and press interest, it was decided that the only option was to postpone the questions until Cllr Jones could be there to respond (and to respond to supplementary questions), probably next month.
It was also agreed that those who wished to ask questions there and then could, but in the event it was only those who agreed with the council's plans who chose to do so.
In light of this, the actual decision to change the language status of the school also had to be deferred until the next meeting.
As I have said, I take no sides but whatever your view of the subject matter, if this was an attempt by County Hall to prevent proper public engagement, it failed miserably and the whole exercise is now due to be repeated in a few weeks time.
Aside from the revised email policy, see here, which was nodded through without so much as a whisper, another item worth mentioning from the meeting was the total agreement by all present, councillors and chief executive included, that the National Procurement Service set up by Welsh Government was a total disaster as it took away the ability of local authorities to make their own procurement arrangements and support local businesses.
I was left a little confused, forgive me if I'm wrong but didn't the council just decide against awarding the tender for catering at Pembrey Park to a local company which had run it for five years, in favour of a company from Bradford? Whilst on the subject of Country Parks wasn't one of the serious allegations currently being (internally) investigated a 'failure to comply with the council's procurement procedures'?
Lastly, I must mention the remarks made by Cllr Meryl Gravell who, towards the end of the meeting, decided to offer her condolences and comment on the awful murder of Jo Cox MP.
Meryl remarked that 'lots' of councillors had to put up with 'lots of nonsense' from the 'press and blogs', 'lots of lies were, and are still being said'.
What was she implying? Was she suggesting that this death of an MP, in all its appalling circumstances, was somehow comparable to valid criticism, and calls for transparency, levelled at the council by the press and blogs?
It was a disgraceful cheap shot to infer that facts, opinions and critical comments on blogs or in the press in Carmarthenshire should be mentioned in the same breath as the appalling events last week.
If Jo Cox MP epitomised democracy, tolerance and justice, then Ms Gravell and her chums, sit squarely at the other end of the scale.