January 14 2003
Mr John Hudson of Broadhaven is in the habit of exercising his democratic right to write to the County Council asking questions about various matters, particularly the accounts.
According to a report in last week's Mercury, Mr Hudson has now received a rather shirty letter from The Leader, Cllr Maurice Hughes which concludes: "Now I would like to ask you some questions. How many letters have you sent to members and officers on this and any other issue? How much do you think it has cost to deal with all your correspondence which generally demand detailed and lengthy responses?"
Nowhere near the £35,000 His Leadership picks up each year, I would bet.
In any case, Cllr Hughes is under a misapprehension if he thinks members of the public are under any obligation to answer his questions.
We do still live in a democracy, however shaky, and the rules of the game are that it is we who ask the questions and those to whom we have temporarily ceded power who provide the answers.
And our rulers should never forget that, when it comes to enforcing this bargain, it is the electors who hold all the aces.
After all, we can get rid of the politicians but they can't get rid of us.
With the elections just over a year away, Cllr Hughes and his cronies would be well advised to remember they are our servants, not our masters
Mr Hudson explains that the reason he writes so many letters to elected members and council officers is that they almost never give him straight answers to his original questions.
I can vouch for that.
Old Grumpy is still waiting for a satisfactory response to the email I sent to Cllr Hughes on 25 November last year, regarding statements in a press release he had issued about the business relationship between the council's economic development consultant Dr Michael Ryan and Cabinet member Brian Hall (see Conflict of interest and Unanswered questions).
Cllr Hughes did write on 3 December stating that he "had nothing further to add" to the press release he sent out on 6 November 2002 but he has not bothered to reply to my email of 5 December in which I repeated my unanswered questions.
His press release, issued after opposition members started to ask questions about Dr Ryan's role after learning of his existence on my website, is, itself, a masterpiece of obfuscation and half-truth.
He writes: "There is no secrecy at all about Dr Ryan's work for the County Council. He is regularly in Pembrokeshire and uses County Hall as his base for three or four days each month. There is nothing secret about that."
So, because Dr Ryan doesn't sneak into County Hall under the cover of darkness, wearing a false beard, we are all supposed to know that he is being paid £18,000 a year plus expenses for providing consultancy services for 35 days per year.
He goes on: "I am disappointed that some members of the opposition on Pembrokeshire County Council claim not to have known about this consultant's existence. I would refer them to Agenda item 6 of the Cabinet meeting of 28 June 2002. Dr Ryan's role in the development of the plans for the Pembrokeshire Science Technology Park at Cleddau Bridge is clearly explained there."
Well, not exactly all that clearly!
What the agenda for the Cabinet meeting in question actually says is: "A consultant with experience in developing new technology science parks, has been working with officers to help to explore option for delivery [of the Cleddau Bridge park] drawing on his experience of other successful science parks "
No mention there of Dr Ryan by name or any details of the terms of his contract with the County Council.
In any case, this meeting, when the first hint of Dr Ryan's existence was revealed, was almost two years after his engagement in August 2000.
Hardly a picture of the sort of open accountable government that Cllr Hughes press release seeks to paint!
Another thing that puzzles Old Grumpy is why an economic development consultant like Dr Ryan is under the control of Mr David Thomas, the council's chief spin doctor, and not the Economic Development Department.
Some weeks ago I reported on events at a Standards Committee meeting where the Community Council representative O E Williams blurted out some extremely interesting information (see Standard practice).
According to Cllr Williams, prior to an earlier meeting of the Standards Committee, at which members had considered a complaint laid against Cllr Terry Mills (Lab) by Cllr Roy Folland (Ind) he had been telephoned by someone connected with the case.
Assuming that the purpose of this call was not to discuss the weather, this sounds suspiciously like an attempt to influence the committee i.e. nobble the jury or, in legal parlance, pervert the course of justice.
As the Standards Committee has the power to suspend a member, without pay, for up to six months, this is a very serious matter.
That all happened back in November and since then even my best connected moles have been unable to supply even a scintilla of information.
Old Grumpy trusts the issue has not disappeared under the County Hall carpet.
The newspapers were in a frenzy over the weekend following the revelation that pop star Pete Townshend had admitted downloading child pornography from the Internet.
This is yet another case in the ongoing investigation known as Operation Ore, which has led to the arrest of more than 1000 suspects, including policemen, schoolteachers, magistrates and, if reports are to be believed, a judge.
The operation is based on information given to UK police forces by the FBI about people who had accessed an American website given over to pornographic pictures of children.
This was a classic sting operation with the FBI arresting the owners of the site and running it themselves, all the while collecting information on the site's users.
Mr Townshend claims he accessed the site as part of the research for a book he is writing on the subject.
There looks like being a spate of such books because, in all, the police have the names of 7,000 suspects.
On a rough calculation, about one five-hundredth of the UK population lives in Pembrokeshire so, assuming the offenders are evenly spread, around a dozen of those under investigation live in the county.
It will be interesting, in due course, to find out who they are.
The County Council's budget setting process is in full swing, though we have not, so far, had any indication of the likely level of Council Tax.
I fear this is a case of 'no news is bad news' because if a small increase is in prospect the Council would not be slow to tell us about it.
At this time of year it is as well to prepare ourselves for the lies and spin that will follow, whatever the outcome.
A small increase in Council Tax will be presented as a triumph for "the prudent management of the Council's resources by the Independent Political (sic) Group" and a large hike as being " forced on us by the National Assembly which has decided that it will shift the burden of local government spending away from central government and more to local people".
Heads we win tails you lose!
Whatever the size of the increase it will be little to do with the Independents.
The main factors will be the amount of money granted by the Welsh Assembly (85% of the total budget) and the spending plans devised by the Chief Officers Management Board (COMB).
The role of the Independent members is to apply the gloss of democratic respectability by raising their hands at appropriate moments i.e. when instructed by the Leader.
No doubt, the minority parties (Lab, Lib Dem and Plaid) will make their usual futile attempts to examine the budget proposals more closely but they will be shouted down by the Independents with accusations of "nitpicking".
In any case, you can't argue with a 39-21 majority, especially when the 39 are gold medal standard at synchronised voting.
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