Up to the minute

At October’s meeting of full council we voted to go into private session to discuss the chief executive’s severance payment.

There was a lengthy debate during which several opposition members argued that debate should be held in public session.

Just before the recorded vote was taken I asked: “Assuming we do go into private session and, no doubt, the Independent Political Group are lined up to vote for that,[Outraged shouts from IPPG members] can the Monitoring Officer tell us what will be in the public domain following this meeting?”

Despite the IPPG’s protests, my claim that they had been lined up to vote the party line proved remarkably prescient because, with the exception of Cllr Wynne Evans, they all backed the call for secrecy and with help from Cllrs Stan Hudson (Con) Alison Lee, David Lloyd and Owen James (all unaffiliated) they carried the day by 30-24.

Having studied the webcast I can report that the Monitoring Officer replied:

It’s been the practice of this council to put as much information into the public domain as possible. I think in this case there will be two sets of minutes – one which will be as full as possible, but without the legal information being given, and one which will be approved by council subsequently and which will detail the legal advice being provided.

Because the information is critical for any decision made by council, if there is a challenge to the decision to show that the legal advice you received was appropriate and relevant.

When the minutes were published they told an entirely different story:

“In response to a further question, the Monitoring Officer stated that the two documents listed in the Agenda as “to be tabled at the meeting” had been sent to all Members in advance of the meeting as the information had been available earlier than anticipated. One report related to a document without legal privilege and the other document was from Counsel on detailed legal advice.

The Monitoring Officer advised Council that it was critical to the decision making process to demonstrate that the legal advice given was appropriate and that the advice given had been taken into account.”

While the final sentence bears a reasonable resemblance to what was actually said, the rest is pure invention.

So when the minutes came before last week’s meeting for approval as a fair and accurate record, I took the opportunity to point out this glaring discrepancy.

The Monitoring Officer explained (at 00.11.46):

“Mr Chairman, as far as I was aware at the time, I was under the impression that the practice I had become used to that it is recorded, sorry, where there is legal privilege been agreed, that a separate set of minutes which are also private and confidential would be prepared.

“Having discussed this subsequently with committee services and with Huw Miller [former head of legal services, now retired] at the time, it’s not the committee’s responsibility, sorry, council’s practice, to maintain two sets of minutes.

“What will be kept is a note of all the information that was given to the committee, sorry, council, during the private section, er, in private and confidential section, which would be made available to any challenge to the decision.

“So, at the moment, we’ve got full public minutes, but still have notes of the debate and the advice given in private and confidential.”

What is noticeable is that there was no attempt to claim that the printed minutes were accurate.

And, in all my time of council-watching, I cannot recall a single instance where the “practice” which the Monitoring Officer claimed to have become “used to” was ever followed. Indeed, the Monitoring Officer seems to be saying that he discovered after the meeting that the promise to prepare two sets of minutes couldn’t be delivered.

So not only did the Monitoring Officer allow what he knew to be a false account to be presented to the council as a true and accurate record, but all the indications are that he was involved in its composition.

If the Monitoring Officer – the person charged with ensuring that the council operates under the rule of law – is involved in this sort of trickery, what chance is there that democracy might return to county hall anytime soon?

And we might also wonder if the result of the recorded vote on going into private session might have been different without the assurance that there would be two sets of minutes.
Now we know what Groucho Marx meant when he said: “I don’t care who’s in the majority, as long as I get to write the minutes.”