Friday’s extraordinary county council meeting turned out to be, well, extraordinary.
The first part went smoothly enough as it was finally conceded that elected members had the right to see the opinion provided to the council by Timothy Kerr (pronounced car) QC.
Mr Kerr was along to dispute the Wales Audit Office’s conclusion that the council had acted unlawfully when it it agreed to allow senior officers to withdraw from the pension scheme and have the employer’s contributions to the fund converted to a “pay supplement”.
Apparently, there were some tax advantages involved.
I must admit that I’ve never earned enough to make it worthwhile to take much interest in tax avoidance, so I don’t pretend to even begin to understand how this works.
To aid members’ understanding, the Leader had arranged for a chap to be flown down from Scotland to explain the intricacies of the scheme.
He seemed to know what he was talking about, but I’m afraid I was left none the wiser.
Whether his journey was really necessary is a moot point because it appears that former Leaders Cllr John Davies (IPG) and Cllr Sue Perkins (Lab) – who jumped ship at the last election and is now an IPPG Cabinet member – both members of the senior staff committee that made the fateful decision, seemed to have a firm grasp of the principles.
Indeed Cllr Davies appears to have taken the lead in explaining the finer points of this tax planning device to his fellow committee members, while the Chief Executive and the Head of Human Resources (who, together with the Director of Finance, was joint author of the report before the committee) maintained a stony silence throughout the proceedings.
And, during the recent investigation, Cllr Perkins wrote to the Wales Audit Office to say that she understood perfectly what was going on at the meeting.
When Cllr Paul Miller mischievously suggested that this “understanding” was an ex post facto rationalisation, Cllr Perkins became rather agitated in a you-calling-me-a-liar sort of way.
I have to admit she has a rather nice line in righteous indignation.
But to return to Mr Kerr.
His services were hardly required because the IPPG, having apparently decided that further resistance was useless, agreed to implement in full the WAO’s recommendations.
One explanation for this surrender is that the present Leader Cllr Jamie Adams had come to the conclusion that the auditor’s case was waterproof.
The other, favoured by the legions of conspiracy theorists that frequent the members’ tea room, is that several of his loyal supporters, having had their ears bent every time they went down the local for a pint, had told him that he couldn’t rely on their votes if he tried the we’ve-done-nothing-wrong-but-we-promise-not-to-do-it-again line that was deployed with conspicuous lack of success following the critical Estyn and CSSIW reports.
Forced to choose, I would have to say that the conspiracists have it.
But Mr Kerr’s expertise wasn’t completely wasted – just as well given his huge fees – because there was another bit of business on the agenda: Cllr Paul Miller’s motion to have the Chief Executive suspended while an investigation was carried out into his part in the pensions affair.
At that point up jumped Cllr Keith Lewis the ultra-loyalist IPPG member, some would say stooge, for Crymych.
Cllr Lewis was concerned, very concerned, because he had made a statement to a newspaper in support of the Chief Executive and having prejudged the issue he declared an interest and, with a flourish, withdrew from the meeting.
Cllr Peter Morgan followed for the same reason.
What happened in the next ten minutes or so is part eye-witness account, part speculation.
Inside the chamber, Mr Kerr was quickly on his feet to tell us with disarming honesty that, when he had been picked up from Port Talbot station the previous evening by the council’s chauffeur-driven limo, he had found an envelope on the back seat containing cuttings from the local newspapers which showed several members had expressed the opinion that the Chief Executive should resign/be suspended.
There is some uncertainty as to whether this envelope was brown or white, but as it makes no difference either way, I am opting for brown for stylistic purposes.
This, he opined, was clear evidence of prejudgement and he advised in the clearest terms that those members should also withdraw.
Naturally, we were a bit reluctant to pass up the chance to vote on Cllr Miller’s motion so questions were asked during which it emerged that the press cuttings in the brown envelope had been assembled by the council’s impartial Monitoring Officer.
However, when Mr Kerr read out the names it became clear that the Monitoring Officer had neglected to include those like Cllr Lewis who had pledged their support for the top man.
Meanwhile, outside, Cllrs Lewis and Morgan must have been wondering why the antis hadn’t joined them.
It may have occurred to them that, if we all decided to tough it out, their unilateral walk-out might not have the consequences that they had anticipated.
In short, the calculation that an exchange rate of four of them for 13 of us would leave the Leader with a healthy majority, wouldn’t work out if we refused to budge.
Alternatively, the Leadership having done their sums and realised that its already shaky majority couldn’t survive the loss of two of its most reliable supporters (some would say stooges) had sent an emissary to tell the two of them to get back in pretty damn quick.
I will have to scan the webcast for evidence.
If you watch the webcast, you will see that, roughly ten minutes after his initial exit, Cllr Lewis has rematerialised and is making the same speech in slightly stronger terms with some “friendly” advice tacked on the end for the benefit of we naysayers.
We did eventually concede the point and Cllr Miller’s motion collapsed through lack of support.
It was interesting to observe the expressions on the faces of the IPPG members as they left the chamber.
Most were obviously exceedingly pleased with themselves for having pulled off this stunt, while quite a few looked as if they’d just been watching a video recording of last Saturday’s match in Dublin.
A case of grins and grimaces.
The grinners should enjoy their little triumph while it lasts because, if what my moles tell me is correct: that some of the more conscientious – as in having a conscience – members of the IPPG are waking up to the true nature of the party, we may have witnessed the beginning of the end of the unpleasant political culture that has disfigured Pembrokeshire’s democracy for this past past 19 years.