April 26 2012

It would be appreciated if readers from across the county could send me copies of election materials put out by independent or no description candidates. I know the cost of stamps is prohibitive, but think of it as your contribution to the cause of democracy. Because of the election this website will be updated at 6.00 pm Tuesday 1 May.

Fantasy island

Someone has kindly provided me with a copy of the election address put out by Cllr Anne Hughes.
I now have a full set, going back to 2004 and all three are masterpieces of obfuscation.
I notice that Cllr Hughes describes herself the candidate with "true independence".
My own election address makes the same claim, so, as Cllr Hughes and myself are as different as chalk and cheese, it is interesting to consider what exactly this means.
In my case it refers to the fact that, not being a member of any party or group, I can judge issues on their merits and say what I think without regard for party discipline.
According to Cllr Hughes it means: "I do not belong or associated with any political party. I am not restricted in what I say I do not have to toe the party line. I am a member of a group of councillors with the same freedom of speech, which does not restrict me from working with any party and has proven to be an important factor as your representative."
With the exception of "toe" for "tow" this is identical with what she said in 2008, as incidentally is the rest of the address.
Never change a winning team!
The reference to "political party" is interesting because it is true that the IPG is not a REGISTERED political party, but in all other respects it is a political party - private group meetings prior to council meetings, voting as a block and the fact that Cabinet positions are the exclusive preserve of the group/party's members.
And, though it will not be clear to the uninitiated, this "group of councillors with the same freedom of speech" is better known as the Independent Political Group
While this collection of half-truths and weasel words might just about have passed muster in 2008, it won't do this time around because the Leader has appointed Cllr Hughes to the Cabinet (£15,000 a year) and in that capacity she is bound by the doctrine of collective Cabinet responsibility.
So it is simply not true to say "I do not have to toe the party line".
I have composed a little ditty to illustrate this point.

When you take the Leader's shilling,
You must toe the party line,
If in this you are not willing,
Then, pluck up courage and resign.

Regular readers will be familiar with Cllr Hughes' capacity for verbal gymnastics and terminalogical inexactitude.
In 2004 she told the voters "I am standing as a true Independent with no allegiance to any party. I WILL NOT abide or be controlled by party policy" (Cllr Hughes' emphasis).
Within three days of the votes being counted, she had signed up for the Independent Political (sic) Group (see Party animals) and a few weeks after that she accepted a post as an assistant Cabinet member (£4,500 a year) which meant she had committed herself to abide by the group's policy.
According to a report in the Mercury; published just after the 2004 election , when its reporter put it to Cllr Hughes that, by signing up to the IPG, she had broken her promise to be a true independent, she "accused the reporter of victimisation and put the phone down". She was also less than forthcoming about when exactly she had signed up. (In denial)
Cllr Hughes also tells the voters: "I have never claimed expenses because I believe money is of secondary importance" .
As I pointed out last week, what this means is travelling expenses (Sins of omission).
It does not apply to allowances.
All councillors are paid a basic allowance of £13,000 and in addition some are paid Special Responsibility Allowances (SRAs) .
In Cllr Hughes case, during her eight years in office, she has been assistant Cabinet member (£4,500 p.a.), vice chairman of council (£5,000) Chairman of council (£10,000) and Cabinet Member (£15,000), all positions monopolised by the IPG.
At a rough estimate, as a result of her decision to throw in her lot with the IPG, she has picked up an extra £27,000.
And that is not the end of it, because for the past six years she has been one of the county council's two representatives on the board of Milford Haven Port Authority - positions exclusively reserved for members of the IPG - for which she entitled to claim £7,000 p.a.

How time flies!

Back in June 2009, I attended a meeting of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority (NPA).
I went along because there was an item on the agenda in which I was interested: Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse's claim for the reimbursement of the £40,000 legal expenses he had run up in defending himself against the Ombudsman's finding that, as the owner of land that could be affected by NPA's "Homes for Locals" policy, he had breached the Code of Conduct by failing to declare an interest when the matter was debated at a meeting of the authority.
Item 18 on the agenda that day was a proposal that the public be excluded from the meeting.
My report on that debate, written the same day from notes I had made, can be read at (Interesting times).
In the event, members voted to exclude the public and I left the meeting.
It was only when the minutes of the June meeting came before the September meeting of the authority for approval that I became aware of what had transpired when the substantive issue of the reimbursement came to be debated.

Those minutes record:

"19. Claim for indemnity of legal costs and expenses
The Member concerned [Cllr Allen-Mirehouse] requested that consideration of the above-mentioned matter be deferred. In support of this request, they stated that they were unhappy with the way in which the Monitoring Officer's report was presented to Members. They acknowledged that the facts of the report were correct, but considered that the Monitoring Officer had placed the wrong inclination on them. The Member also asked that their Solicitor be allowed to represent them in this matter.
The Monitoring Officer reminded the Member that he had already given them the opportunity to make their representations. He agreed that the matter was one of considerable complexity, and that the Member had been the innocent party in this case, nevertheless it had to be pointed out that the Authority had played no part in the matter either. The Monitoring Officer went on to say that, as the Member should disclose a pecuniary interest in the matter and consequently withdraw from the meeting, it therefore followed that their Solicitor could not be present.
The Member then asked whether the matter could be deferred in order that a meeting could be arranged with the Monitoring Officer to discuss the report, and that the report be considered at the next meeting of the Authority. The Member then withdrew from the meeting.

Members were divided in their opinions, with some wanting to decide the matter that day, whilst others wanted a deferment to enable the Member to meet with the Monitoring Officer.

Following a lengthy discussion, it was RESOLVED that the matter be deferred to enable the Member to make representations to the Monitoring Officer on the content of the latter's report."

When I read this minute I quickly concluded that, by taking part in the discussion on this item, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was in breach of the Code, so I complained to the Ombudsman.
Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's first line of defence was that he had only remained in the meeting "for a few moments at the most".
Understandably, the Ombudsman was not persuaded by this "few moments at moments at most" defence.
In the first place the minutes are not a verbatim report of what was said, but even they suggest there was a protracted debate on the matter.
Consider, the "few moments at most" are covered by ten lines, while the two lines beginning "Members were divided . . ." is the complete record of a debate which witnesses told the Ombudsman went on for the best part of an hour.
In addition to what the minutes record, the Monitoring Officer told the Ombudsman that: ". . . following the members decision to exclude the public, the members of the public left the room but Cllr Allen-Mirehouse remained present. He again advised Cllr Allen-Mirehouse that he risked a "red card" (by which he meant a breach of the code) if he stayed because he considered he had a clear prejudicial interest. He also advised him that it was a "show and go" situation, by which he meant he should declare an interest and leave the room."
All that, and what is recorded in the minutes, in "a few moments at most"?
His second line of defence was that his request for a deferral recorded in the minutes took place between the end of item 18 and the beginning of item 19 and was not part of the meeting and, therefore, not covered by the code
That would seem to imply the possibility of unofficial, informal meetings during the course of the meeting proper.
Does anyone really believe that when member's planning application comes before the planning committee he can say "Chairman, before you move on to the next item could I say that this scheme is within the planning policy and I urge the committee to support it", before declaring an interest and withdrawing from the meeting?
Thought not, and neither did the Ombudsman.
His report concludes: "The evidence also suggests that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse continued to address the authority on his request for a deferment despite receiving clear advice from the Monitoring Officer that through his continued presence at the meeting, he risked being in breach of the Code of Conduct."
And ". . . there is no doubt that his request to members to have the matter deferred was an attempt to influence the Authority's decision on the matter. As his interest was prejudicial he should not have addressed the members at all. I therefore consider that he clearly breached paragraph 14(c) of the code."
But Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was not quite finished.
He claimed he had declared his interest in the matter.
The Ombudsman wasn't buying that, either, because not only was there no such declaration recorded in the minutes, but other people present at the meeting said he didn't.
He concluded: "The evidence does not therefore support Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's contention that he declared the existence and nature of his interest orally before or at the commencement of the meeting in compliance with paragraph 11(1) of the code."
He might have added that, when the draft minutes of the June meeting were published in September, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse made no attempt to have the minutes corrected to include this "failure" to record his supposed declaration of interest.
Final result: The Facts 3 - Cllr Allen-Mirehouse 0
Cllr Allen-Mirehouse is deputy leader of the ruling Independent Political Group.

Demob happy?

IPG loyalist Cllr Rosalie Lilwall has a letter in this week's Western Telegraph, in which she says she is retiring from council and is, therefore, "in a position to publish my own thoughts because I no longer need to be diplomatic."
She says: "I get very annoyed with members of the public who think they know better than officers who have acquired university degrees in their chosen subject and then have many years experience doing the job".
She also has some harsh words for those members of the public who stand for election stating that they intend "to sort the council out".
"How the heck does that sort of person do that, when they don't have the background knowledge that officers have?" she asks.
This officer-knows-best mentality is commonplace in the IPG.
I remember one classic example from the late 1990s, when I was reporting for the Mercury on the budget debate.
After members of the Labour Group, who were asking questions about various items of expenditure, had been accused of nitpicking by the, then, IPG leader Eric Harries, up jumped the late Cllr Essex Havard (IPG Newport) who launched into a long speech ending with the words: "It's the officers who set the budget, not the members. Thank goodness!"
What was amazing about this was not so much what Cllr Havard said, but the fact that the IPG benches exploded with a spontaneous and prolonged burst of clapping.
Of course, if you take the view that officers should be left to get on with running the council, free from scrutiny by your elected representatives, don't be surprised if members of the public, who ultimately pay the bills, begin to wonder why they are forking out over £1 million a year (the cost of running a medium-sized primary school) in allowances and expenses for what are, according to Cllr Lilwall, a bunch of know-nothing councillors.
On the subject of university degrees, I estimate that if you walked down the street and stopped 39 people (the number of IPG members currently serving on the council) at random, you would, on average, come across at least five times more graduates than are to be found on the IPG benches.
And wouldn't it have been better, in the interests of open, accountable democracy, if Cllr Lilwall had made known her attitude to the public's views before she was elected, rather than on the occasion of her retirement?

Off-balance

On a couple of occasions during my recent battle with the letter boxes and door bells of Hakin, I have heard a myth about the founding of the Independent Political Group which I thought I had put to bed a long time ago.
The story goes that, following Labour's decision to operate as a group following the1995 local elections, the independents had no choice but to form a group themselves.
The claim is based on the fact that, absent the IPG, Labour with 14 seats would have been the biggest group and that it would have dominated the council.
You may, of course, wonder which variation of standard arithmetical theory was used to reach the conclusion that 14 could dominate a council of 60.
However, from what IPG members tell me, it seems that it was the operation of the political balance rules that was to put Labour in the driving seat because as the biggest party they would be entitled to a majority on all the council's committees.
I have no idea who told the Indies this, but I do know it is totally wrong.
What the legislation actually says is: "that the majority of seats on the body [committee] is allocated to a particular political group if the number of persons belonging to that group is a majority of the authority's membership"
And, of course, as 14 is not a majority in a council of 60 members, this rule would not apply and committee seats would be distributed in proportion to membership i.e. Labour would be entitled to 14/60ths, or roughly one quarter.
The other source of confusion is the provision that: "Members of an authority are to be treated as divided into political groups when there is at least one political group in existence constituted in accordance with Regulation 8"
And Regulation 8 provides that "a political group comprises two or more members who give written notice of their wish to be treated as a group".
But, just because some members form a political group, it doesn't mean that others have to follow suit; witness the six current members, including Grumpy and Grumpette, who are described as "not affiliated to any group".
Indeed, according to the regulations, Pembrokeshire County Council would still be considered as divided into political groups if just two members formed a group and the other 58 chose to remain unaffiliated.
In that case the biggest group would be entitled to 2/60ths (1/30th) of the committee seats and the remainder would be shared out between the other 58.

Promoted and published by the candidate Mike Stoddart Milford Haven Hakin ward Pembrokeshire County Council elections May 3 2012.

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