July 5 2012

Moles galore

As those of you who take pride in your lawns will have noticed, there are a lot of moles about this year.
And not just the furry sort.
Old Grumpy is awash with info about the goings on in county hall - some of it believable, some not.
My theory is that, having taken a closer look at the election results, some of the more astute members of the IPPG have concluded that the electorate might be tiring of "truly independent" candidates who sign up to political groups once the votes are safely in the bag.
Contemplating the grisly fate of ex-councillors and IPG stalwarts Anne Hughes, Jim Codd, Clive Collins and John George they have decided that having a foot in the opposition camp might be a useful form of insurance.
As Dr Johnson said: the sight of the gallows concentrates a man's mind wonderfully.
One such tells me that, at their secret group meeting held on the day before the EGM to discuss the closure of Milford Haven, Tenby and Fishguard police stations to the public, one prominent member suggested that should opposition members give the Leader a hard time on the issue they should disrupt them by barracking.
In the event, these bully-boy tactics were rejected.
Which is a pity because I quite enjoy a bit of verbal fisticuffs.
However, anyone considering such tactics would do well to remember that they have been tried before (Shouted down).
That was back in December 2004 and I am happy to report that my three tormentors on that occasion: Bill Roberts, Islwyn Howells and Alwyn Luke, all became ex-councillors at the next election.

Party games

Another mole tells me of an email sent to all members of the, then, IPG a week after the election informing them of the decision of the party's leader, Cllr Jamie Adams, to appoint Labour's Sue Perkins to fill the Cabinet post for safeguarding children vacated by Anne Hughes.
Given the horse trading that was going on over positions of power and authority, not to mention the Special Responsibility Allowances that go with them, this was a delicate issue and Cllr Adams had to tread carefully.
The decision was clothed in fine words about the need to cast the net widely, to draw on the widest possible pool of talent; appoint someone who would command the confidence of both council members and the Welsh Government; and who had experience in the field of child safeguarding.
I am told that it wasn't until the next to last line that Cllr Adams got round to mentioning Sue Perkins' name.
Behind all the guff there were two main reasons for Cllr Perkins' appointment.
First was a need to give a nod towards gender balance in the Cabinet and with no suitable woman available in the IPG ranks Cllr Adams had to look outside the party.
Second, with Labour in control of the Welsh Assembly, appointing a Labour member to the Cabinet might be expected to produce a more emollient line from Cardiff.
The other interesting thing about this email is that I am told it was posted from a computer in county hall.
As it was sent out on 11 May, and Cllr Adams wasn't elected as Leader of the council until the AGM on 24 May, this was party and not official council business.
Knowing of the email's existence and being keen to see it in the flesh, I put in a Freedom of Information request.
It also occurred to me that there might be other emails in similar vein of which I was not aware, so I widened my request to include all emails sent from county hall computers on behalf of the IPG during the first three weeks of May.
The council replied that the Information Commissioners guidance on this subject was that:
"Correspondence between councillors or information held by a councillor for their own private, political or representative purposes will not usually be covered.
Information created or received by a councillor but held on a local authority`s computer system or at its premises will only be covered if it is held for the authority`s own business."
So, I will have to find another way to get hold of it.
However, while the emails might be out of reach of the Freedom of Information Act, I'm not so sure about the Code of Conduct.
According to the Code, members must not use the council's resources "improperly for political purposes".
This would be of particular significance if one of my more reliable moles is correct in their claim that the election addresses of a number of members of the IPG were generated by some of the group's leading lights on computers in county hall - presumably in the Cabinet room.
That would explain, for instance, why Jim Codd's election leaflet had East Williamston spelt wrongly as East Williamson on four occasions.
He would be hardly likely to make that mistake himself!
I will report further when my mole produces some solid evidence.

P. S. Help is at hand because someone has sent me a copy of an IPG election strategy document from the 2008 election entitled "Oppersition" (sic).
I suspect it might have been written by the same person who couldn't spell East Williamston.
Mind you, given my difficulties with Martletwy, I'm a fine one to talk.

Well, I might be an idiot, but I can count up to three.

Balancing act

Cllr Malcolm Calver's successful battle to overturn the decision of Pembrokeshire Council's standards committee that he had brought the office of councillor into disrepute by posting derogatory comments about Manorbier Community Council on his website was concluded last week when the standards committee received a report on the case from the Monitoring Officer.
Old Grumpy has been taking a keen interest in the case because in the past eighteen months there have been similar complaints about this website and, if Cllr Calver's bid to clear his name had failed, I would have been next in the firing line.
However, it seems that not everyone is happy with the High Court decision because the council's Monitoring Officer reports that: "The Association of Council Solicitors and Secretaries (ACSS) had encouraged the Ombudsman to appeal the Court’s decision".
It would appear that the Ombudsman is not about to take that particular bait because the report also says that "no information has been forthcoming from the Ombudsman as to his intentions."
It seems the ACSS is unhappy that the judge in Cllr Calver's case failed to set out clear rules as to how to reconcile the Code of Conduct with the right to freedom of expression enshrined in Article 10 of the Human Rights Act because the Monitoring Officer reports: "Unfortunately, the Court did not provide any clear guidance. It stated that 'a balance has to be struck between the various relevant aspects of the public interest in all the circumstances of the case'; and 'the matters that have to be balanced , in the present case, on one side of the balance a councillor’s right to freedom of expression and the public interest in such freedom and on the other side of the balance the public interest in proper standards of conduct by members of local authorities are not easily commensurable' ".
There is a mass of case law on this subject - almost all of it favouring freedom of expression.
The most robust stance is that taken by Lord Hoffmann in R v Central Independent Television Plc where he said: “there is no question of balancing freedom of speech against other interests … it is a trump card which always wins”.
Most judges have not been prepared to go quite that far but it is clear from reading the cases that it is only the most conspicuously offensive words that fall outside the protection of Article 10.
Another consideration is that political speech enjoys a higher level of protection than other forms of expression and, when the barbs are aimed at other politicians they are deemed to have "thicker skins" than the ordinary man in the street.
The High Court held that Cllr Calver's remarks on his website were political - he was drawing attention to the failings of Manorbier Community Council, which even the Ombudsman's barrister conceded was a "disaster area" , and its members - and that members of MCC were politicians.
This last point seems to trouble the Monitoring Officer because he reports: "Elected representatives must now be deemed politicians. Community councils do not usually comprise political groupings; community councillors are unpaid and see their roles as community representatives rather than politicians. They must now have thicker skins than fellow members of their communities."
While nobody likes to be branded a politician - a class whose public approval ratings are only a notch or two above bankers and used-car salesmen - the fact is that once you take to yourself the power to impose taxes on your fellow citizens, and the power to determine how the money raised will be spent, like it or not you are one of them.
The reference to "political groupings" seems to be a nod in the direction of the distinction between party politics and other forms of the disease which bedevils public life in Pembrokeshire.
When people say "there is no place for politics in local government" what they usually mean is party politics.
In order to take advantage of the electorate's dislike for party politics most members stand as independents.
Once the votes have been counted, many then sign up to the Independent Political Group, or whatever it's now called.
But even those of us with a poorly-developed herd instinct, and who remain resolutely independent of any political affiliations - party or group - are still politicians.
So the idea that you can keep politics out of local government is strictly for the fairies.

Competition

A reader tells me that my monopoly of council member blogs is under threat.
It appears that a newly elected councillor, one Jacob Williams who represents East Williamston, or should that be Williamson, has set up a website.
I've just logged on and I must say it's very swish.
I might have to up my game if I want to maintain pole position.
Just to show that I'm not afraid of a bit of opersition, I am providing a link jacobwilliams.com

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