Cllr Rob Lewis, deputy leader of Pembrokeshire County Council has been suspended for two weeks for his part in producing IPPG election material on council computers during the 2008 and 2012 elections.
You might think that a two week yellow card is rather a weak response considering that what Cllr Lewis was actually up to was subverting the free and fair elections in which our ancient democracy prides itself.
And, if the ruling party has privileged access to the taxpayer funded resources during an election campaign, how can the election be said to be fair?
And, if the election isn’t fair, how can it be said to be democratic?
And what should also be remembered is that, while he was sitting in the Cabinet room producing election addresses and plotting the IPG’s return to power, Cllr Lewis was being paid by the taxpayer to carry out the duties of cabinet member for highways.
The penalty for this undermining of the democratic process was, as one of my opposition colleagues put it, a slap on both wrists .
It is one of the basic principles of democracy under the rule of law that government and party are kept in separate compartments.
Imagine the outcry if it was found that the Tories were using the Whitehall machine to promote their election campaign in May 2015.
And the county council’s standards committee thinks a fortnight in the sidelines is adequate punishment.
The history of this case is interesting.
Its genesis lies in the Partygate files reproduced on that other website which showed that Cllr Lewis and his Cabinet colleague, ex-Cllr David Wildman had been hard at work on the Cabinet room computers producing election leaflets and fliers for present and potential IPG (as it was then known) members.
What caught Old Grumpy’s eye was a series of election leaflets and fliers produced by Cllr Wildman for one Byron Frayling who was standing for the first time in Haverfordwest Garth.
This seemed a bit strange because the sitting member was IPG (as it was then known) stalwart David Bryan.
Why the IPG would want to run a candidate against one of its own has never been explained, though one theory is that Cllr Bryan had developed an annoying habit of taking the independent tag a bit too seriously.
Anyway, as you can imagine, when Cllr Bryan read about this on Old Grumpy’s website (10 July 2012) he was seriously dischuffed.
So he wrote to the Monitoring Officer seeking advice about making a complaint to the Ombudsman.
The Monitoring Officer was, to put it mildly, less than encouraging.
He told Cllr Bryan: “I have no knowledge of any issues regarding publicity material being produced on PCC computers and having read the blog cannot identify any substantive information that corroborates the allegation. No investigation would be undertaken on such “gossip” (at best) and contacting the Ombudsman would be a waste of time.”
Undeterred, Cllr Bryan sent the Monitoring Officer a copy of the properties of one the offending files which showed ‘wildmand’ as the author and ‘PCC’ as the source.
The Monitoring Officer was a bit more forthcoming on this occasion and offered to try resolve the situation through mediation.
Not unreasonably, Cllr Bryan declined this opportunity to ‘kiss and make up’ whereupon the Monitoring Officer took the information to one of the council’s IT specialists.
Again the outcome was not encouraging from Cllr Bryan’s perspective because the IT man demonstrated that these properties pages could easily be edited to say anything you wanted.
As a result, the Monitoring Officer concluded: “From a legal stand point, if this were a court case, I would suggest that the integrity of the “evidence” is not verifiable.”
Refusing to be put off, Cllr Bryan sent a DVD containing all the files to the Ombudsman and there followed an 18-month investigation culminating in yesterday’s standards committee proceedings.
The Monitoring Officer acts as legal advisor to the standards committee, though his opinion on the integrity and verifiability of the “evidence” was not required at yesterday’s meeting because Cllr Lewis had already admitted that he was the author of sixteen of the files and that they had been generated on PCC’s computer system, and his feeble attempts to justify the other other five were easily swatted away by the committee.
The proceedings of the committee are held in public except that their deliberations are carried out in private session.
This is very similar to the Magistrates Court where the bench hears the evidence in public and then retires to consider its verdict.
The Monitoring Officer’s role is therefore similar to that of the Clerk to the Magistrates in that they will provide legal advice during the public session and should any legal issue arise during the private session they will be called into the retiring room to give their advice.
It is the rule in the Magistrates Court that, except in exceptional circumstances, the Clerk should only enter the retiring room for the purpose of giving advice (see here).
Due to a strange confluence of circumstances this practice was not followed at yesterday’s meeting.
Unfortunately, the senior committee services officer, who usually takes the minutes at these meetings, was on leave and the officer present was the least experienced of the committee clerks.
Consequently, the Monitoring Officer took it upon himself to act as committee clerk during the closed session.
That meant he was present throughout the committee’s deliberations – not good practice, I would have thought.
First, if the experience of the minute clerk was an issue, why wasn’t a more experienced member of the committee services staff drafted in?
Second, as no minutes of the committee’s deliberations are ever published, it is not easy to see why it requires someone of the Monitoring Officer’s pay grade to take them.
It all leaves me with an uneasy feeling that the well known principle: that justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done, has been violated.
There is some speculation on that other website as to who might replace Cllr Lewis in the Cabinet.
That is based on the heroic assumption that he will do the honourable thing and resign, or that the Leader will do the honourable thing and sack him.