18 February 2002

 

Buried treasure

There was an interesting discussion at last week's County Council Policy and Resources Committee on the increases to members' allowances (see last week).
In answer to a question from Plaid Cymru Leader, Michael Williams, the Director of Finance, Mark Lewis told the members that the additional cost of the increased allowances was £405,000 a year (or the salaries of 20 schoolteachers).
Mr Lewis said that the Welsh Assembly had "made it clear" that the extra cost had to come from within the settlement (the amount of money allocated to the Council by the Assembly from the national pot).
That prompted Lib Dem Leader John Allen to ask which services were being cut to fund this extra spending.
Chief Executive, Bryn Parry-Jones, assured him that the Assembly had taken this into account when calculating the settlement and allocated additional funding to cover it.
That, alas, begs the question of what spending the Assembly has had to cut in order to give local authorities the extra £12 million the new scheme is likely to cost across Wales.
Cllr Allen said that he was not convinced that giving councillors such huge increases was the most effective use of taxpayers' money.
But Cllr Roy Folland, one of the Independent Group's leading thinkers, and odds-on favourite for a £22,000 a year billet in the soon-to-be-announced Cabinet, quickly shot him down.
"As far as the taxman is concerned he's done very well out of me" the lugubrious undertaker intoned.
It's hard to argue with philosophical analysis of that quality, except to say that, as tax is levied on profits, it would seem to follow that Cllr Folland must have "done very well" out of those unfortunate enough to require his services.

 

Death of democracy

Having awarded themselves a hundred percent pay rise, members of the Committee turned their attention to the Council's new constitution; a 79 page document drawn up by the authority's legal eagles in readiness for the change over to Cabinet government on 1 May 2002.
When these new arrangements are in place there will be a ten-person Cabinet made up of Independents chosen by the Leader, Maurice Hughes, plus four, ten-person Scrutiny Committees each consisting of seven Independents and three members from the minority parties.
The Scrutiny Committees will have the power; exercised by either the Chairman (Independent) or four members, to "call-in" decisions of the Cabinet for review.
Labour Leader Joyce Watson claimed that this constitution did not accord with the aims and aspirations of the Welsh Assembly, which had introduced this new structure in order to foster open, accountable, democratic local government.
"We have no idea what she's talking about", interjected Cllr Alwyn Luke - a remark that probably explains why he, too, is being talked about as a possible Cabinet member.
Chief Executive, Bryn Parry-Jones, evidently had a different view of the Assembly's intentions than Cllr Watson.
According to the Chief Executive the impetus for the changes came from the Government's realisation that "local authorities are not getting things done".
So, the primary purpose is to speed things up i.e. the very antithesis of open, accountable, democratic government.
Mr Parry-Jones said that he expected the "call-in" procedure to be invoked sparingly
(he is right because with Independent Group stooges as Chairmen of the Scrutiny Committees, and insufficient minority group members to force the issue, there will be few if any challenges to the Cabinet's authority) and he warned that if the "call-in" procedure was used to delay matters it would "encourage the Executive [Cabinet] to use the Urgency provisions".
Now, according to the constitution the "call-in" procedure does not apply when the decision is deemed to be urgent.
And when is something urgent?
Why, when the Cabinet with the agreement of the Chairman of Council (another Independent Group placeman) says it is.
And, even when the Scrutiny Committee does object to a called-in Cabinet decision, it will have no effect, because, as the constitution says: "If [the Scrutiny Committee's objections are] referred to the Executive [Cabinet] the Executive shall then consider the matter at its next meeting and make a final decision which shall then not be subject to the call-in procedure".
So even if all 50 non-Cabinet members are opposed to an Executive proposal the most they will be able to do is delay it for a week or two.
If the new constitution is in accord with the law - always a questionable assumption where the County Council is concerned - what we have is not a move towards open, accountable, democratic government but a legalised coup d'etat, which has handed control over our affairs to a ten-man Junta, with no County-wide democratic mandate.
Next week I will highlight those constitutional provisions dealing with access to information that will encourage even more backstairs dealing and hole-and-corner decisions than we have at present.

Falling masonry

A recent inspection of the County Council's Register of Members' interests, reveals a dramatic, not to say catastrophic, drop in the number of Freemasons on the council.
Soon after the 1995 election, I was able to write a front page story in the Mercury under the banner headline " County Council: One in Three a Mason. "
Now, I notice that a combination of death, defection and electoral defeat have reduced Masonic influence in the 41-strong Independent Political (sic) Group from 17 members to a rump of six.
Indeed, so far as I can ascertain, the only new Mason to join the council since 1995 is Jim '' Son of Solomon " Codd, who lists himself as a member of the " Ancient and Honourable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons - Narberth Lodge ".
The other five masons in the I PG are Maurice Hughes (Leader) Bill Hitchings (immediate past chairman of Council) Leslie Raymond (vice-chairman of Council) Micky Folland (vice-chairmen of Highways) and George Grey (vice-chairman of Finance).
However, I do notice that 19 of the 41 Independents claimed membership of various churches and chapels, including a Deacon, a Churchwarden, a Church Secretary and several Parochial Church Councillors.
Given this strong Christian influence, it is somewhat surprising that no one has chosen to speak out about Councillor Brian Hall's bogus expense claims or the subsequent, even more serious, cover-up.
The money-changers would have had the run of the Temple if this lot had been in charge.

Elusive truth

Watching the unfolding of the twin dramas of " Garbagegate '' and Jo Moore's overdue fall from grace, Old Grumpy is struck by the similarities with events closer to home.
I refer of course to the question of whether or not the county council's Head of Marketing and Communications, Dai "Spin" Thomas, participated in the meeting during which Councillor Mark Edwards was carpeted by Independent Political (sic) group leader, Maurice Hughes, for breaking with Independent Group policy and publicly calling for a referendum for an elected mayor.
This may seem a relatively trivial matter, but to Old Grumpy it raises three issues of fundamental importance.
Firstly, as Councillor Edwards is an independent, what business is it of Councillor Hughes, or anyone other than his constituents, what his views are on an elected mayor?
Secondly, if Mr Thomas, a public servant was present at this purely internal political party meeting, what was his role?
If, as both Councillor Edwards and Councillor Michael Williams claim, Mr Thomas admitted to them that he did participate by telling Councillor Edwards that he shouldn't speak to the press, what does that tell us about the relationship between the Independent Political (sic) Group and senior officers of the council?
Was Mr Thomas acting as a " political adviser '' a la Jo Moore, rather than as the impartial public servant, for which he is paid?
And finally, Councillor Hughes and Mr Thomas, while denying Councillor Edwards and Councillor William's version of events, seemed unable to agree between themselves about what actually happened.
In Mr Thomas's case, he has allowed himself the luxury of telling two significantly different stories in the space of a couple of weeks.
Old Grumpy notices that the Council's new constitution contains a section on a "Citizens' rights".
These include the right to "vote at local elections if they are registered", which is really rather decent of them.
Perhaps some keen member of one of the minority parties will propose an addition to these citizens' rights: that members of the public and press, when dealing with council officers and members, have the right to expect absolute honesty.

Revealed truth

It seldom pays to cheat and lie,
And you should know the reason why,
For it is known with scarce a doubt,
That in the end, the truth will out.
(Old Cumberland rhyme)

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