July 18 2006

Shrinking violet

Last Thursday's meeting of the county council witnessed a brief interruption of the Independent Political Group's synchronised voting routine when Mr Gary Phillips, one of the directors of Cleddau Enterprises Ltd - the company competing with Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) for the purchase of the Mine Depot at Blackbridge - leaned over the front of the public gallery and shouted "Bullshit".
This was in response to the the Leader's rather unconvincing explanation as to how confidential Cabinet papers had found their way into the hands of MHPA during the bidding process (see "A likely tale" below).
This caused quite a stir, with the Chairman, Steve Watkins, threatening at one point to call the police to restore order .
Fortunately that proved unnecessary because, having had his say, Mr Phillips left of his own accord.
Following the meeting, when I asked one of the IPG members what he made of the Leader's explanation, he responded: "Bollocks!"
Strange that he didn't feel the urge to say so during the meeting.

Planted question

One who did have something to say was Cllr Jamie Adams (assistant Cabinet member for asset management) who made one of his trademark interventions to ask his Dear Leader about members leaking confidential Cabinet papers to the press.
As this was during questions on on the leaking of confidential Cabinet papers to MHPA by someone other than a member, I can only assume that Cllr Adams question was a diversionary tactic.
The leader was, of course, more than happy to dwell on this topic, which, he was keen to point out, had only arisen in the past two years i.e. since the last election.
So, by what passes for logic in the IPG mind, it must be the work of a newly-elected member.
I understand that Old Grumpy is the prime suspect, though I am slightly ashamed to admit I am not the culprit.
My shame comes from my belief that, in situations where members believe there is wrongdoing, it is their duty to let the electorate know what is going on.
For a discussion on why leaking is healthy for democracy see Pressing duties.
I took the decision, early on, to avoid leaking to the press in order to deprive the IPG of the pleasure of having me hauled before the standards committee.
However, I take my hat off to whichever public spirited member has had the courage to do what they consider to be the right thing.
There is, I think, a subtle distinction between leaking as a matter of conscience and leaking designed to undermine the integrity of the tender process by putting one of the parties at an advantage over another, though it may be a bit much to expect anyone who fails to understand that Independent Political Group is an oxymoron to be over-blessed in the subtlety department.
But just in case I am wrong, I would ask Cllr Adams to consider whether his party chieftains would be so relaxed about leaks if they had solid documentary evidence that a member of the opposition, rather than an officer, was responsible.


Spurious safeguards

I have been handed a 100 page document entitled "Modernising Trust Ports - a guide to good governance" (MTP) which sets out the ground rules for organisations like Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) now that they are not under the direct control of the DETR.
As a declaration of democratic values this document can't be faulted.
It is littered with words like transparency, integrity, honesty, openness, trust, fairness and accountability - indeed the whole litany of democratic buzz words is here to be found.
These democratic safeguards are required because, as MTP points out, trust ports have no owners or shareholders and, therefore, ". . . in the final analysis trust boards only need to be accountable to themselves."
However, it is not just themselves that the trust port board must consider, because MTP also outlines their obligations to "the stakeholders" an amorphous group that includes port users and employees together with "all those individuals, organisations and groups that have an interest (not necessarily pecuniary) in the operation of the port."
That, I think, would include the 1,800 voters that I represent in Hakin.
Of course, Old Grumpy was keen to see how MHPA had measured up to these model constitutional provisions during its recent attempts to purchase the Mine Depot at Blackbridge, particularly the use of confidential county council documents to further its own commercial interests.
Of particular interest was the fact that Chief Executive Ted Sangster had told pembrokeshiretv.com that: “We were not passed any confidential information by anyone inside the County Council.” only to change his mind when confronted with the evidence (See MHPAdocs).
Old Grumpy notices that MTP requires that Chief Executives should "conduct themselves with integrity, impartiality and honesty in relations with the board and the public."
It is now two weeks since I e-mailed Mr Sangster asking how these worthy sentiments can be reconciled with the patently false statement he made to pembrokeshiretv.com.
To date, he has not found time to reply, which leads me to believe that all the fine words in MTP are just another in the long list of spurious safeguards on which our democracy now rests.

An unlikely tale

Then again, I might just be wrong because county council Leader John Davies told last Thursday's meeting of the authority that the draft Cabinet report given to MHPA wasn't confidential after all.
Indeed, he claimed it had been given to MHPA in order to ensure that the terms being proposed for approval reflected the negotiations between the parties.
And, therefore, everything was perfectly above board.
Or, as they used to say in the comics I used to read as a boy: "And with a bound, Jack was free."
Now, what Cllr Davies said is true, but not in the way that it appears because the actual report that went to Cabinet (where it was, incidentally, taken in private session and is, therefore, still confidential as far as the rest of you are concerned) makes little or no mention of terms and conditions.
Indeed, the only thing that could possibly meet that description is the length of the proposed lease - 999-years.
There is no mention of the price to be paid, nor of the terms regarding the repair of the sea wall, nor anything else of any significance.
And, surely, if the intention was to clarify the terms and conditions, the correct way to go about it was to send MHPA a letter.
But the negotiations that the Leader referred to had two strands.
Firstly there was the price and here we have only Mr Sangster's version of of events to go on.
According to Mr Sangster sometime before the November meeting of MHPA board he had reached an agreement with the county council to pay £600,000 for the site in two instalments.
The November meeting of the board approved this expenditure (see MHPAdocs).
Mr Sangster claims that he had been given assurances "by the Chief Executive and others" that the site would be sold to MHPA at this price even if a higher bid was received because "they would be able to take into account the total economic value to the County rather than just the straight forward (sic) cash amount."
However, Roger Barrett-Evans (director of development) and Neville Henstredge (head of property) seem to have had other ideas because while £600,000 was a higher figure than the £550,000 bid by Cleddau Enterprises Ltd, the difference was not sufficient to make up for the loss of interest due to MHPA's instalment plan.
So Mr Sangster was prevailed upon to throw another £20,000 into the pot.
But these negotiations went much further than was, in my opinion, proper.
By his own admission; published in the Mercury, Mr Sangster had been told by the council that his £600,000 bid was higher than that of Cleddau Enterprises Ltd.
But he had also been told that the difference wasn't big enough to compensate for the loss of interest.
I would suggest that, whether told the precise value of CEL's bid or not, anyone armed with those two pieces of information was in a position to make a highly educated guess.
However, that was not the end of the matter because these negotiations involved matters that were, in reality, nothing to do with MHPA's bid for the site and everything to do with Mr Sangster persuading the board to cough up the extra cash.
So in his letter of 11 January 2006 (see MHPAdocs) Mr Sangster offered the additional £20,000 "on the understanding that Roger [Barrett-Evans] and you [Neville Henstredge] will expedite our offer for the Blackbridge site going forward to your next Cabinet meeting with a recommendation that it be accepted . . .".
And in the final paragraph of that letter "I look forward to receiving confirmation from you of initially the recommendation of our offer and hopefully very soon its acceptance."
And, on the 19 January, this confirmation was duly provided in the form of a draft report containing a recommendation that MHPA's bid be accepted that was to be put to Cabinet two-and-a-half weeks later on 6 February.
On 20 January Mr Sangster presented this confidential report to the board (see MHPAdocs).
Explaining his decision to increase his offer, he told the board: ". . . I took the pragmatic view and approved the offer as given above to gain the commitment to put forward the proposal (my emphasis) as in the accompanying paper for the next Cabinet meeting."
Given that the site was, at that point, being sold for best consideration [price] - witness the council's eagerness to persuade MHPA to fork out an extra 20 grand - it is difficult to see how such a "commitment" could be given, considering that it was always possible that, at any time, Cleddau Enterprises might pop up with an enhanced offer,
The council has consistently claimed that, as a matter of course, all bidders were told when a higher offer was received.
I have now accumulated a vast dossier on this affair and I can find nothing to indicate that Cleddau Enterprises Ltd was ever told that its offer of £550,000 had been topped by MHPA.
Had they been told, I have have no doubt they would have increased their offer as of course they did when they found out what was afoot.
It should also be remembered that, when this story first broke, Ted Sangster denied all knowledge of the confidential Cabinet papers (see above) and the county council told the Mercury that it was ". . . not aware of what paper was attached to the Port Authority report."
Now we are asked to believe that this same mysterious paper was given to MHPA as part of routine contract negotiations.
And why would Ted Sangster tell the MHPA board: "Please note this is confidential within the County Council procedure and we have been asked to treat the report in the strictest confidence." if there was nothing to hide?
And why would whoever gave MHPA the document ask that it be treated "in the strictest confidence" if its release was a routine contractual matter?
Of course, when you exercise iron control over 38 of the 60 votes on the council, you don't need to concern yourself too much with either truth or logic.


The block vote was out in force for the other big issue debated at last Thursday's meeting.
That was the notice of motion, put forward by Cllrs John Cole, Alun Byrne and myself, which would have seen the senior staff committee stripped of its plenary powers when determining the pay of the chief executive and directors.
Readers will remember the recent furore over the large pay increase awarded to the chief executive by a six-member committee made up of the Leader, three members of his Cabinet and two members of the opposition.
Our notice of motion would have restricted this committee's powers to making recommendations to full council on matters of pay, thus giving all members of council a say.
And, on a recorded vote, in a surprising show of unanimity from people who claim to be "independent", 34 of the 35 IPG members present voted against this proposal (Cllr Henry Jones abstained), which would seem to indicate that they are perfectly happy to subcontract their judgement - and yours - to the Leader and his Cabinet cronies.

Sad fellow

There was no shortage of suggestions for alternatives to Socialist Friend for the initialism SF.
The "S" brought forth silly, stupid and sad, but there was virtual unanimity with regard to the "F".
So, congratulations to the person who came up with sad fellow for proving that Standard English is still used in some parts of the county.
And, I suppose, sad fellow is an apt description for someone who still holds fast to this outdated philosopy more that 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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