August 13 2002

Unoriginal sin

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so Old Grumpy was rather pleased to see the Ombudsman's office described as a chocolate fire guard in the comment column of last week's Mercury.
I believe this term was first used by me with reference to that august but toothless watchdog some years ago when I was occupied that particular piece of columnar territory.
I remember the occasion well because I discovered the term when searching for an alternative to the rather hackneyed chocolate teapot.
My first idea was chocolate toasting fork but that was rejected when I realised that the younger generation, reared in the era of the pop-up toaster, would never have experienced the delights of impaling a piece of bread on the aforementioned implement and holding it in front of the coal fire until it was nicely charred.
About a month ago I spotted another piece of blatant plagiarism in the Mercury, this time by our Assembly Member, Dr Richard Edwards, who referred to County Hall as Kremlin on the Cleddau.
This bears a striking resemblance to Kremlin on Cleddau; the term used since time immemorial in this column in relation to that monument to civic conceit.
My version is preferable because it follows the normal usage.
I bet the beer wouldn't taste so good if it was brewed in Burton on the Trent.
Still, mustn't complain: after all we're all plagiarising for the same side.
Not that I am above stealing the odd colourful bon mot myself should the occasion demand.
When interviewed on a recent TV programme about the new arrangements for local government I used the phrase: If this is democracy I'm a banana, which, as readers of Private Eye will know, is a direct descendant of If this is justice I'm a banana; uttered, memorably, by the magazine's editor Ian Hislop on the steps of the High Court after an unsuccessful attempt to defend a libel action.
And I'm a banana is, itself, only a polite euphemism for a well known phrase that seeks to draw an improbable comparison between part of the male anatomy and a type of smoked herring.
So, I suppose, we're all plagiarists of one sort or another and, as the American playwright Wilson Mizner said: "If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; if you steal from many, it's research."


Synchronised voters

Way back in 1995 or 1996, while enjoying a calming cigarette on the top of the stairs outside the Council Chamber, during a meeting in the Town Hall, I was approached by Milford Haven Town Councillor George Max.
Cllr Max told me that he had sent a copy of the Mercury to his son, who was living away, and the son had rung up to say how much he agreed with an article I had written in which I had argued that those who had been elected as Independents in the recent County Council elections, and then formed themselves into a "political group" at the earliest opportunity, had misled the voters.
Judging from his general demeanour, I concluded that Cllr Max and his son were at one on this issue.
I couldn't have been further wrong.
A few months after this conversation, a vacancy arose on the County Council following the resignation of Terry Mills who had taken up a post in Brussels.
Cllr Max stood as an Independent at the resulting bye-election and won.
I don't need to tell you the rest.
Last week, as part of my mission to find out exactly what went on at the Independent Political (sic) Group's secret meeting on July 17 (see July 29) I rang Cllr Max and, while on the phone, reminded him of our conversation all those years ago.
He insisted that the Independent Political Group was not a political party.
"So why do you have secret group meetings the day before important council meetings?" I asked.
Cllr Max replied that nothing was decided at these secret meetings, which he claimed, were merely occasions for "an exchange of views".
"There's no whip", he assured me, "members are allowed to vote as they please".
I referred to my own experience as a member of Preseli Pembrokeshire District Council, which was almost wholly made up of independent Independents and where the arguments were often so finely balanced that the Chairman's casting vote was required to break the deadlock.
"If there's no whip, how do you account for the fact that officers' recommendations are invariably voted through by a large margin, at the behest of your Leader?" I asked.
"That's because the Independents have such a big majority," he told me.
No whip! Big majority! Am I missing something?



Watchdog sleeps


Old Grumpy hears that the Ombudsman [Commission for Local Administration in Wales] has kicked the various complaints against Milford Haven Town Councillors into the long grass.
It is easy to see why the Commission would want to steer clear of these childish squabbles, but some of the reasons given for not investigating the various matters are hardly compelling.
For instance, Cllr Molly Pritchard complained that she had been called a witch by one member and a liar by another.
She cited Section 4(a) of the Model Code of Conduct which provides that: "Members must carry out their duties and responsibilities with due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity for all people, regardless of their gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, age or religion, and show respect and consideration for others."
From what I can gather, the Commission's interpretation of that section is that "show respect and consideration for others" refers to what goes before i.e. in the context of equality of opportunity.
If that is correct then you can get away with calling someone a fascist pig but not an old buffer or a stupid woman.
But the subject of this row is even more revealing than the row itself.
It concerns the grandly named Millennium Fund, which consists of £5,000 of our money set aside for good causes.
Half the fund is devoted to a music scholarship financed by the income from £2,500 invested in a building society account.
At current rates of interest, that should realise about £100.
About half this interest should be reinvested to protect the value of the fund against inflation.
So, that leaves the lucky recipient with £50 - enough to buy an extra half pint of Worthington a week.
But the cost to the taxpayer doesn't stop there.
Presumably, in the interests of fairness, the award will need to be advertised; the potential beneficiaries will have to apply; a committee will need to meet to decide on the relative merits of the applicants; and the Town Clerk will have to attend to the paperwork.
All in all, the cost of administering the award will be more than the worth of it.
Not that that will bother the old buffers on the Town Council because these taxpayer funded charities allow them to do that which they find most enjoyable: puffing up their own self-importance by spending other people's money.

Overworked or overstaffed?

Old Grumpy has been studying the County Council's new constitution, with particular regard to the functions of the recently formed Cabinet.
My interest in this document has been rekindled by The Leader Maurice Hughes' claim that he spends 70 hours a week beavering away in County Hall on our behalf.
That means five 14-hour days, or, assuming a 9am start and an hour for lunch, that he doesn't go home until midnight.
So, what duties force this fearsome schedule on Cllr Hughes and his Cabinet colleagues?
Well, according to the constitution, the Cabinet is responsible for 20 what are called "Local choice functions", though these should not long detain them because 16 of the functions have been delegated to the officers and the remaining four don't add up to even half a row of beans.
However, on page 32 and 33, there is a list of "Functions reserved for the Executive [Cabinet]" including the formulation of plans and strategies.
Picture the scene in County Hall as Cllrs Hughes, Roy Folland, Brian Hall, Bill Hitchings, Peter Stock et al sit at their desks putting the finishing touches to the final draft of the Early Years Development Plan, or the Youth Justice Plan, or the Crime and Disorder Reduction Strategy, or the Annual Library Plan, or the Lifelong Learning Development Plan.
In all, there are 19 of these plans and strategies, which is, as near as makes no difference, two each.
No wonder they have to work round the clock.
And what has happened to all the highly paid officers whose task it was under the old system to prepare these plans and strategies for the Council to rubber stamp?
Surely they can't all still be required., now that Cllr Hughes and his Cabinet cronies are spending more than 400 hours a week on the job.

Quote of the week

 We must beat the iron while it is hot, but we may polish it at leisure. John Dryden (1631-1700)

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