July 17 2007

Two sides to every story

During its closing stages, the Adjudication Panel hearing into the Ombudsman's allegations that Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse had breached the councillors' Code of Conduct suddenly burst into life.
As I explained last week (see Whitehall farce), the regulations under which the Adjudication Panel is constituted do not not allow the Ombudsman's legal representative to cross-examine witnesses or play any meaningful part in the proceedings.
All that changed after Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had been cleared of any wrongdoing and his QC invited the tribunal to award costs against the Ombudsman.
Then, it came more to resemble a proper judicial process with both barristers able to join in the argument.
Mr Gwydion Hughes for the Ombudsman said it was "iniquitous" that, thus far, he had not been allowed to participate in the process.
"Had I been allowed to do so, a host of questions would have been asked", he said.
He attacked the defence argument that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse didn't have an interest because policy 47 [homes for locals] had later been abandoned.
"That can't be right," he asserted, "Just because the policy was abandoned doesn't reflect the gravity of failing to declare an interest."
"Take a hypothetical councillor who takes part in the debate on a policy which he believes might have a detrimental effect on his interests" he said.
"If he goes down that route and the policy is not adopted it doesn't alter the gravity of his actions" he said.
Mr Hughes added it was clear from an exchange of correspondence between Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's agents, Owen and Owen, and his architects, Acanthus Holden, that policy 47 had been under discussion in November 2001; some two months prior to the National Park meetings where the alleged failure to declare an interest took place.
He referred to a letter dated 19 November 2001 from Acanthus Holden to Owen and Owen in which they said that the National Park Authority would shortly be introducing the policy that would reserve all new dwellings for locals.
The architects said this would not apply to planning consents granted before adoption of the new policy and steps should be taken to avoid the policy becoming applicable to their client's land.
Owen and Owen's reply said: "I have made the client [Cllr Allen-Mirehouse] aware of these matters."
Mr Hughes suggested that the use of the word "avoid" was a clear indication that the policy would work against Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's interests because it implied there were adverse consequences to be avoided.
"So, two months before the January meetings of the National Park Authority, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was aware of the detrimental effect of the new policy, and, if he entered those meetings knowing of the potential detriment, he should have declared a personal interest." he said.
Mr Hughes concluded by asserting that a councillor, who, believing that a provision would have a detrimental effect on his interest, nevertheless took part in a meeting where that provision was discussed, couldn't claim not to have an interest just because, in due course, he finds that belief is wrong.
After retiring to consider their decision tribunal members rejected Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's claim for costs

Simple explanation

The Ombudsman's decision to reopen the case after the initial police investigation had cleared Cllr Allen-Mirehouse was several times criticised by the defence.
Mr Robin Tolson the defence barrister said at one point: "There is no explanation as to why, the police having completed their investigation, the Ombudsman reopened the case without considering what was in Cllr Stoddart's mind."
This attempt to paint me as a Svengali-like figure, pulling the Ombudsman's strings, is laughable
In fact, the answer to this question is really rather simple and I am sure that, had he been allowed to participate, the Ombudsman's counsel could have provided an explanation to both Mr Tolson and, more importantly, the tribunal
I initially complained to the Ombudsman in May 2002.
The Ombudsman passed the matter to the police.
After several requests to both the Ombudsman and the police for a progress report, in July 2003 - more than a year after my initial complaint - the police informed me that pressure on resources had delayed their investigation but that it had recently begun in "earnest".
In a letter dated 24 September 2004 - how time flies - the Ombudsman informed me the case had been closed because the police had concluded that there was "insufficient evidence to pursue a criminal investigation against Cllr Allen-Mirehouse."
In that letter the Ombudsman also said: "He [Cllr Allen-Mirehouse] has stated that he has not applied for permission to develop any land and there is no evidence that he has any land which would be affected by the adoption of the [homes for locals] policy within the National Park."
As, up to that point, only the police had been involved in the investigation, it must be presumed that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had made this statement to them.
Following receipt of the Ombudsman's letter, I inspected the planning files in the National Park offices and discovered two applications by Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's agents for the inclusion of land which he owned within Angle village limits.
This evidence that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse did indeed own land that might be affected by the proposed policy, contrary to what I was given to understand he had told the police, was forwarded to the Ombudsman who, quite naturally, reopened the case.
So, it was the contents of the National Park's files, and not anything in my mind, that led to the Ombudsman's decision to take the investigation forward.
Indeed, during the course of the reopened investigation the Ombudsman's investigator discovered that in June 2001 - more than six months before the National Park meetings where the alleged failures to declare an interest occurred - Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's architects, Acanthus Holden, had been negotiating to have the plot known as Whitehall included in the Angle village limits.
I would suggest that, if any explanation is required, it would be from the police, who might be asked why, after more than two years on the case, they failed to uncover evidence that Old Grumpy was able to find within an hour of arriving at the National Park offices.
At the end of his reopened investigation, the Ombudsman concluded that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse had breached the members' Code of Conduct.
The Adjudication Panel disagreed.
At Thursday's meeting of full council the Leader suggested I should apologise for making this complaint to the Ombudsman.
I can't see that I have anything to be sorry about.
All I ever did was provide documentary evidence which the Ombudsman used as the basis for his investigation and conclusions.
My conscience is clear, because all I ever told the Ombudsman, the police, and anyone else involved in the case was the truth.

Democratic deficit

Thursday's meeting of full council provided yet another example of the authoritarian nature of the Independent Political Group.
This was Cllr Bill Roberts' first business meeting in the chair and he set out to show his IPG colleagues just what a tough guy he is.
There were nine written questions down on the agenda on the complexities of the Cleddau Bridge finances.
Chairman Bill announced that the cabinet member for highways, Cllr Jamie Adams, would be allowed to answer all the questions at one go before members were allowed to ask supplementary questions.
He further announced that he was exercising his discretion to limit the number of supplementary questions to one, and that had to be asked by the member who submitted the original question.
I had sent in three questions on a single sheet of paper and Chairman Bill ruled that these were to be treated as a single item.
Naturally, I protested vigorously at this restriction and eventually, after the chief executive had leaned across and whispered in his ear - presumably to tell him he was completely out of order - the chairman conceded the point.
Of course, because the cabinet member had answered all the questions in a lump it was difficult to remember what he said in response to any particular issue, making supplementary questions difficult to frame.
To add to these difficulties, the chairman kept up a constant stream of interruptions.
Any member who introduced his supplementary with a preamble was immediately slapped down.
At one point Chairman Bill said that questions must begin with words like how, when and why.
While I hesitate to get into an argument about grammatical niceties with a former primary school headmaster, I am not sure he is right about that.
Take the question I frequently ask myself during council meetings: "Is it for this that we fought the second World War?" which contains none of these indicators.
However, what I am sure about is that the chairman wears the chain on behalf of all the people of Pembrokeshire and any chairman who allows himself the ruling group's poodle demeans the office.
In support of this proposition I would refer to the council's constitution which, under the heading: "Role and function of the Chairman" provides that his role is "to chair meetings of the council so that its business can be carried out efficiently and with regard to the rights of councillors and the interests of the community."
The Cleddau Bridge is an important issue for many people in this county and for the chairman to seek to obstruct members during questions to the executive on the subject is a gross betrayal of both his office and the basic principles of democracy.
The electorate would do well to consider whether it is in "the interests of the community" to allow such people to hold power.

Happy wanderer

I know from my e-mails that a lot of you are fascinated by Cllr Brian Hall's travel expense claims.
So, today, I can provide you with with an overview of his performance by printing the members' expenses for 2006-2007.
As you can see, Cllr Hall was way out in front with travel claims of more than double those of his nearest rival: Leader, Cllr John Davies.
This is even more impressive than it looks at first sight, as the Leader lives more than twice as far from county hall.
Members are paid 50p per mile so the mathematicians among you will know straight away the £12,486 equates to roughly 25,000 miles - more than the circumference of the globe.
And when you take into account the additional 11,000 miles he claimed from the fire authority, he is past New Zealand on his second lap.
For the arithmetically minded the figures can provide endless diversion.
For example Cllr Hall's mileage amounts to 750 miles per week or 150 miles each working day, and an average speed of 40 mph (I assume he gets stuck in those traffic jams at Merlins Bridge just like the rest of us) would mean he spends more than two full days behind the steering wheel each week.
"How does he manage to cover so many miles?" one reader asked.
And why would anybody want to come all the way back from Swansea to Haverfordwest and then turn round and drive to
Cardiff?(see Unnecessary journeys)
I must admit that I'm as baffled by all this as you are.
If I was in Swansea, and I had a meeting in Cardiff the same day, it wouldn't occur to me to proceed to the capital city by way of Haverfordwest
Mind you, I hate driving - indeed the only reason I drive at all is that I hate walking even more.
My problem with Cllr Hall's motoring activities is that I'm never sure whether I should be criticising his apparent lack of organisational planning skills, or saluting his almost superhuman productivity.
Take 13 November 2006, for example, when his county council claim shows him travelling to county hall (Cabinet business) then on to Texaco (Cabinet business/waste) and Tenby (Cabinet business) and county hall (meet director) and, finally, to Swansea to visit the Ferry Boat waste plant with Ant O'Sullivan - in all, 180 miles at 50p.
According to his Fire Authority claim for that day, he also drove from Pembroke Dock to Carmarthen for a working group meeting - 66 miles at 40p.
Hard to believe that, until a couple of months ago, such a chaotic character was leading light in Cllr John Davies' Cabinet.
Or that, if his IPG colleagues hadn't taken fright at the prospect of having to support him in a recorded vote, he would still be there (see Hall's resignation - what really happened).
.Indeed, Dear Leader only decided to sack him on the morning of the meeting where the vote was to have taken place, when his last minute efforts to cobble together a deal to save Hall's skin failed to find favour with his colleagues

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