23 February 2012.

Wall of secrecy

A row has broken out in Haverfordwest over the sale of the town's castle for conversion to a boutique hotel.
The decision was made behind closed doors at the January meeting of the county council's cabinet.
The Town Council is up in arms about the proposal and Cllr Peter Lewis has called for "the breakdown of the wall of secrecy that they have built up around it"
Cllr Lewis is also demanding that the townspeople should know who is buying the property "and how much for"
He is right to be concerned about the price for which an asset owned by the people is to be sold.
However, he shouldn't run away with the idea that the Town Council is being systematically kept out of the loop.
The truth is that even the Cabinet, who unanimously endorsed the sale, were not told the price.
And, even more surprising, none of them thought to ask.
They agreed to dispose of the property "on terms acceptable to the Director of Development".
So much for democratic oversight!
Another question that might concern the people of Haverfordwest is the stance their four Independent Political Group members (Cllrs Peter Stock, David Bryan, Lyndon Frayling and Mark Edwards) have adopted towards this sale, which, as it was unanimously approved by the Independent Political Group Cabinet, is presumably official party policy.
And if they didn't agree, what steps did they take to have the decision called in by the economic development scrutiny committee?
Indeed, Cllrs Stock is chairman of the Environment Scrutiny Committee so he could have called it in off his own bat
I have emailed the Western Telegraph suggesting they might put this question to Haverfordwest's representatives in the ruling IPG, so we'll see what they have to report next Wednesday.

Gravy galore

I am grateful to David Edwards for pointing me to the 2010 - 2011 annual report on Hywel Dda Health Board's website.
For those who haven't been keeping up, Hywel Dda is the health board created from the amalgamation of the three health boards that served the counties of Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion.
An amalgamation, I should add, that was almost unanimously opposed by Pembrokeshire people during a series of public "consultation" meetings in 2007.
But I digress.
What the annual report shows is that health administration is an expensive business.
The board has two parts.
First are the twelve executive directors with a combined salary of £1.1 million ( list below).
Then there are the ten non-officer members who come in at a knock down price somewhere between £180,000 - £230,000.
This imprecision is because the salaries are given in bands (e.g £45 -£50K) rather than actual sums.
That is £1.3 million plus a no doubt substantial sum for administration before a scalpel has been wielded or a stethoscope pressed on a patient's chest.
One name on the list of non-officer members that caught my eye was that of Cllr David Wildman county councillor for Burton who trousered £10-£15,000 for four days a month - £200-£300 per day.
Nice work if you can get it, especially as in the same year, Cllr Wildman also picked up £13,000 councillors basic allowance and another £15,000 for being a Cabinet member of Pembrokeshire County Council.
Some £38,000-£43,000 a year - not to be sniffed at.
Cllr Wildman is on the board as local authority (i.e. your) representative though, as he is the sole local authority rep, he must also, presumably, represent the good folks of Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion.
Living in a democracy - the will of the people and all that - it would be interesting to know how Cllr Wildman came to be appointed (or should that be anointed) to this position.
I shall try to find out, though I can say with absolute certainty that it wasn't anything to do with an election.
And, as being a Cabinet member is supposed to be a full-time job, you have to wonder how he finds the time.

Executive Directors

Mr T Purt £170-175,000
Dr S Fish £110-115,000
Dr S Mahon £120-125,000
Mr T Chambers £125-130,000
Mrs B Rees £110-115,000
Mrs C Oakley £110-115,000
Mrs K Miles £120-125,000
Ms J Wilkinson £110-115,000
Ms K Davies £90-95,000
Mr C M Wright £85-90,000
Mrs S L Veck £70-75,000 (ten months)
Dr L Harris £120-125,000

Non-officer members
Mr C Martin Chair £55-60,000
Ms J Hawes V Chair £45-50,000
And Mr E W Griffiths, Mr D K Thomas, Mrs J Jeffs, Mrs M Rees-Hughes, Prof M Jasper, Mr T N Irish, Mrs J James and Cllr R D Wildman at £10-15,000 each.

Loaded questions

I read in the WT that Hywel Dda's recent "Listening and engaging process" in Pembroke Dock produced a "Positive public reaction".
Part of this process involves a questionnaire in which the public are asked to respond to statements by ticking one of five boxes: strongly agree - tend to agree - neither agree or disagree - tend to disagree - strongly disagree.
That's fine until you read the questions.
One reads: "The NHS in Wales is facing huge funding challenges, so the Health Board must organise services to spend the money it is allocated in a better way, achieve value for money and avoid duplication.
Now, how could anyone possibly disagree with that?
But my favourite is: "Hywel Dda Health Board needs to ensure services meet quality and safety standards for patients. This will mean better patient care."
Strongly disagree, anyone?
I'm not sure which is worse: having our intelligence insulted or the fact that we paid someone to write this stuff.

Guilty without trial

Soon after I sent off my my response to the Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's complaint (Once more into the breach) I received a list of questions from the Ombudsman. It seems that most of the councillor's complaint had been disregarded because the questions were reduced to only four areas.
The first was about my posting of 20 January 2009 (False trail) about which the Ombudsman asked: "What was the reason for making this comment".
Well, the article itself contained a link to the main reason, but I nevertheless printed off a copy and others in the same vein and put them in the post.
The second asked me to justify my remarks on 14 May 2009 (Silent conspirators) particularly the words "who was taking an interest in the corrupt relationship between Cllr Hall and Dr Michael Ryan" Again, there was more than enough evidence in the links in the piece itself but just to be sure I printed off all the relevant articles and put them in the post.
Third my posting of 5 March 2010 (Poisoning the well) was causing concern and the Ombudsman asked whether I could corroborate my assertions of councillors fiddling their expenses and receiving favourable treatment from the planning committee. I must admit it gave me some pleasure to print off my various contributions on these two subjects.
The result was a dossier almost two inches thick and a huge bill for postage.
The fourth item was the 'confidential' National Park report, of which more later.

Eventually the Ombudsman produced a report the conclusions of which are reproduced below.
The numbers in square brackets indicate my footnotes below.

With respect to your complaint about the content of Cllr Stoddart's blog, it appears that he wrote these blog entries in his personal capacity. Cllr Stoddart is not a member of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority. I have therefore to consider whether Councillor Stoddart's conduct engages the County Council's code of conduct.
As outlined above, where a member acts in a personal capacity my role is limited to considering whether a member's conduct in his private life has brought the Council or office of councillor into disrepute [1].

At first glance the comments made by Cllr Stoddart appear to be more characteristic of a personal attack [2] against members of Pembrokeshire County Council. Cllr Stoddart uses the blog to criticise members and highlight what he considers to be corruption. Whilst Cllr Stoddart comments could be considered disrespectful, and to have an adverse impact on the office of member. However it it noted that the comments and accusations are not wholly unsubstantiated [3]. On occasions [4] he has evidenced his assertions by either scanning the evidence which he believes to be compelling onto his blog or referring readers to the relevant documents.

Whereas authorities with an enforcement role involved in the matters referred might have formed the view that there was insufficient evidence to proceed with any formal action, Cllr Stoddart believed that there was a sound basis for the statements he made on his blog.

The information he published may have brought himself into disrepute [5], I am not persuaded that his conduct has breached the code of conduct.
Furthermore given the lapse of time from the postings of the blogs to the complaint being made to this office even if the Pembrokeshire County Council's standards committee were persuaded that the comments brought the office of councillor into disrepute, I am not persuaded that in the circumstances any sanction would be applied [6].

With respect to Cllr Stoddart's publishing of the "Private and confidential" report that had been written by the Monitoring Officer of the Park Authority, Cllr Stoddart said that the Monitoring Officer's report had been provided to him anonymously, and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. Cllr Stoddart has admitted that having received a copy of the, he scanned it and copied it onto his blog.
I do not agree with Cllr Stoddart's view that as he is not a member of the Park Authority the Council's code of conduct could not be engaged. [7] As outlined above, the disrepute provision at paragraph 6(1)(a) applies to Cllr Stoddart's conduct in his private life . It is clear that he chose to ignore the "Private and confidential" nature of the Monitoring Officer's report despite it being clearly marked. As a member of the county council he was well aware of the importance of this , Cllr Stoddart took the decision that the disclosure of the report concerning your application for reimbursement of your legal costs dated 2nd July 2009 was in the public interest, a decision he was not entitled to make [8]. Whilst the Park Authority itself declined to make the report publicly available it only did so after it had determined the application. This was a decision for the Park Authority, not Cllr Stoddart to make.
Cllr Stoddart's actions show a disregard for both the authority of the Monitoring Officer [9] and the confidential nature of the information. His actions in disclosing the document may have an adverse impact on the opinion of his constituents and colleagues have of him and may well have raised questions about his ability to deal with confidential information he receives as an elected member of Pembrokeshire County Council. [10]. I am however mindful of the lapse of time since the information was disclosed in 2009 and that your complaint against Cllr Stoddart followed his complaint against you concerning events at the relevant meeting of the Park Authority. I am therefore of the view that it would not be appropriate to refer this matter to the council's standards committee at this stage [11]. However I will be drawing Cllr Stoddart's attention to the need to comply with relevant section of the code of conduct.
My finding under S69 of the Local government Act 2000 is therefore that no action needs to be taken in respect of the matters investigated [12].

[1] The distinction here is that disrespect only applies when a councillor is acting in his official capacity whilst bringing the office of councillor into disrepute covers private behaviour.
[2] I don't do personal attacks. All my criticisms concern actions taken in their capacity as councillors. If these people weren't in positions of power, I wouldn't give them a second thought.
[3] "Not wholly unsubstantiated". what sort of language is that to use in a legal document. It encompasses everything from 1% substantiated to 100% substantiated and is essentially meaningless. Knowing how much certain members would welcome the chance to sue, I take every precaution to ensure that everything I write can be defended in a court of law. That is why, despite receiving many letters threatening that "if you don't publish an apology and retraction within seven days, my client will have no alternative but to resort to legal action" nobody has yet plucked up the courage to front up.
[4] That should read "on all occasions".
[5] In whose eyes?
[6] As the Ombudsman has already decided that I have not breached the Code, what is the point of speculating whether the standards committee would impose a sanction. Without an adverse Ombudsman's report, the standards committee has no powers to do anything.
[7] The Code of Conduct that I signed up to on becoming a councillor was that of Pembrokeshire County Council.which requires that I don't disclose confidential information that comes into my possession in my capacity as a councillor. I received the confidential National Park report in my capacity as a journalist, albeit unpaid.
[8] Journalists have all the time to make judgements about what is and what isn't in the public interest. I agree that journalists are not the final arbiters in these matters - that is ultimately for the courts - but there is such a thing as a public interest defence. As £40,000 of public money was involved which the National Park authority had no obligation to pay, I would fancy my chances of convincing a court that my disclosure was in the public interest (Open secret).
[9] I am under no duty to respect the authority of the Monitoring Officer of the National Park, or any authority other than the one of which I am a member.
[10] My constituents, many of whom have read my column in the Mercury, which frequently dealt with confidential information leaked to me by my vast network of moles, have never raised this matter with me. And I think the Ombudsman is seriously confused about this. I have never leaked confidential/exempt information that has come into my possession in my capacity as a county councillor for the simple reason that I made a solemn promise not to do so when I took office as a county councillor and agreed to abide by the Code of Conduct. I am bound by no such promise with regard to the National Park. This attempt by the Ombudsman to hang his conclusion on such a feeble argument smacks of desperation.
[11] Does this imply that the Ombudsman might refer this matter to the standards committee at some later stage.
[12] This seems unjust because the Ombudsman has found me guilty of breaching the code while denying me the opportunity to defend myself.

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