January 29 2008

Object lesson

 

Last week I made a rare visit to the National Park offices to listen to the debate on the monitoring officer's report on the East Blockhouse affair (Inside track) (Quick off the Mark?)
Although 12 of the 18 members of the park authority are county councillors, the contrast with how things are done in County Hall was striking.
For a start, the chairman Cllr Simon Hancock seemed perfectly well able to conduct the meeting without the benefit of the chief executive constantly whispering instructions into his left ear.
Cllr Hancock also appeared to understand that his role demanded scrupulous fairness and members were allowed to speak without constant interruptions from the chair.
Compared to what goes on in County Hall, this was quite an edifying experience.
Old Grumpy hopes that county council chairman Cllr Bill Roberts, who was recently appointed to the National Park committee, was taking notes (Democratic deficit).
However, while the way the meeting was conducted was in stark contrast to events in the Kremlin on Cleddau, there were also some striking similarities, not least that the five Independent Political Group present a minimal contribution to the hour-long debate.
This is all of a piece with their performance in the council chamber where they seem content to let the Leader do their talking; only springing into life when called upon to put on one of their impressive displays of synchronised voting.
Indeed the only IPG member who spoke was Cllr Robin Evans who wanted to know if the East Blockhouse site had ever been placed on the open market.
Had he found time to read the monitoring officer's report he would have known the answer was no.
Perhaps IPG members are mindful of Dennis Thatcher's advice: "They probably suspect you're a fool, so why open your mouth and remove all doubt."



Self-policing

 

As for the debate itself, the park's chief executive, Nic Wheeler, told members that the monitoring officer had found prima facie evidence that the authority's estates officer, Gary Meopham, may (emphasis added) have breached the officers' code of conduct and that he had launched a further investigation, headed by one of the authority's two directors, with a view to discovering if there was any "proof"of wrongdoing.
It occurred to Old Grumpy that, if the monitoring officer, who has statutory investigative powers, couldn't find what Mr Wheeler understands as "proof", there is little chance that a mere director will do any better.
Nor was it made clear which standard of proof would be required: the civil standard (balance of probabilities) or the criminal (beyond reasonable doubt) though, as this is essentially a contract of employment matter, it should be the former.
Members were also told that the results of this second investigation would be reported to Mr Wheeler who would decide what, if any, disciplinary action should be taken.
The report would also be published provided the parties agreed.
Fat chance of that, I would have thought.
I smell the whiff of red herring.
It is also worth remembering that Mr Wheeler had known of Mr Meopham's involvement in the purchase of East Blockhouse since September 2006 but the monitoring officer was only called in, at the request of the chairman, in October 2007.
Some members were uncomfortable with this internal investigation.
Cllr Michael Williams said that members were frequently lectured about the importance of public perception of the authority, and he wondered what the public would make of an investigation of one officer by another, particularly as the National Park was a small authority where everybody knew everybody else.
Former police inspector Tony Brinsden agreed.
"I was a member of an organisation that used to investigate itself, and the public didn't think much of that". he said.
Richard Howells wondered if an independent external investigator could be employed, but Mr Wheeler quickly sat on that suggestion by pointing out that, under the authority's constitution, members had delegated internal disciplinary matters to him.
It is interesting how, when it suits, the constitution can be rolled out as Holy Writ, yet on other occasions, such as the asset management group's "decision" not to purchase the East Blockhouse site - under the constitution it only had the power to make recommendations to the senior management team (SMT) - the problem can be skirted around by the invention of an "implied delegation" of the SMT's powers.
Other members were concerned about the members' role in all this.
As Cllr Sue Perkins and Tim Giles pointed out, had it not been for the planning application and the fuss over the diversion of a footpath, members would have continued in blissful ignorance of the whole business.
That, I think, raises important issues about member involvement in general.
Over the years we have meekly put our hands up in favour of schemes of delegation that have transferred powers to officers with the result that we have now reached the point where, instead of being central to the running of these authorities, as democratic principles would seem to demand, we have become mere spear-carriers.
We have only ourselves to blame.


Clipped wings

 

Monitoring officers have been to the forefront this week with Pembrokeshire County Council's recently appointed incumbent calling time on the shady activities of the planning (delegation) sub-committee.
I wrote about this committee's disreputable behaviour back in December 2006 (Bending the rules) following its decision to remove two planning applications from the delegation scheme.
The monitoring officer has been taking a look at the the committee's past minutes and, while I wouldn't want to cause him problems with the powers that be by suggesting that he might have been reading my column, I am heartened that we have both reached the same conclusion.
Basically, the monitoring officer has found that the committee's decisions were outside its terms of reference and that "undue weight would appear to have been given to non-material issues put forward by the local member."
This is a polite way of saying that the sub-committee's actions were unlawful.
To soften the blow, the monitoring officer puts these misdeeds down to lack of training.
However, that can't be the case because, shortly after the last election, all members were invited to a seminar conducted by a leading planning barrister at which the principles of planning law were clearly explained.
It is not lack of training, but lack of trainability that is the problem.
Simply, the Independent Political Group has been abusing its inbuilt majority on this quasi-judicial sub-committee for its own political advantage.
What's new? you might ask.


Losing streak

 

The Six Nations has rather crept up on me and haven't bet as much as a pint of bitter on Saturday's match at Twikkers.
Just as well, I suppose, in view of England's abysmal showing following the 2003 World Cup.
If they come next to bottom after winning the thing, just how low will they sink as mere runners-up?
Not that I've forsworn gambling altogether because I've made a bet with a Labour friend of mine about the number candidates running under the Tory banner in May's local elections.
She says there will be 19 or more which seemed rather optimistic seeing that only one managed to crawl out of the woodwork in 2004.
However, my confidence took a bit of a jolt when a well connected source told me that the Conservatives, buoyed by their success in the Assembly elections, had signed up 23 candidates.
The only consolation is that, according to my mole, these include Cllr Peter Stock, who, the story goes, is worried about his Cabinet prospects after the election and is seeking to bolster his chances by being the Leader of a sizeable contingent holding the balance of power.
This is fascinating stuff, but strictly for the fairies.
At least I hope it is because my bet on the number of Tory candidates is a double or quits for the bottle of £3.99 Merlot I lost when my forecast of the result of the Pembroke St Michael by-election proved far wide of the mark
Chasing your losses can be a dangerous business, as M. Kerviel of Societie Generale has recently discovered.
While I'm not quite in his league, it would be interesting to work out how many times you have to double up on a £3.99 Merlot before you find £3.7 billion has disappeared down the drain.
Or somebody else's drain in this case.


Bumper cropper

My views on the American Presidential race are as simple as ABC - Anybody But Clinton.
I was rather warming to young Mr Obama until I heard he'd won the endorsement of Teddy Kennedy
Older readers will remember that the younger Kennedy shot to fame when he drove his car off a bridge at Chappaquiddick and ran off leaving his passenger Mary Jo Kopecne to drown.
Some years later, following the Long Mile Island nuclear accident, Kennedy ran a campaign calling for improved nuclear safety.
The wind was taken out of his sails when a bumper sticker appeared which read: "Remember - more people died at Chappaquiddick than Long Mile Island."
It could only happen in America - nowhere else do you find cars that wide.


Laugh a minaret

 

Last week, Radio Four ran a programme on Muslim humour.
I had always thought of Muslims as a rather serious bunch, but, according to the BBC, they like a good joke as much as anyone else.
That said, I can't help wondering how a programme like "Spitting Image" might go down in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
And I have some difficulty coming to terms with the idea that the stone faced Ayatollah Khomeini might be a barrel of laughs.
But I seem to be falling into the trap of stereotyping Muslims and, if the the BBC is to believed, my view of them as people who will leave no turn unstoned is just plain wrong.

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