24 June 2003

 

Action stations

 

No word, as yet, from Cllr Brian Hall's solicitors.
However, on Saturday, I received a letter from lawyers representing Dr Michael Ryan, Hall's confederate in Euro-Ryall Ltd, the company the two of them set up a few months after Oriain Associates International Ltd (ORA) (managing director Michael Ryan) was awarded a £450 a day consultancy contract with Pembrokeshire County Council.
Old Grumpy has received a number of similar letters over the years.
They demand an assurance that I will promise not to repeat what they claim are libellous allegations; and to print a retraction and an apology, otherwise their client will have no alternative but to commence proceedings for damages for defamation.
In the past I have always resisted the temptation to take the easy way out and I see no reason to make an exception in the present case.
In fact, I am rather looking forward to having some of the Council's top brass, under oath to tell the truth, in the unfamiliar environment of the witness box.
While it is never pleasant to find a threatening letter on the doormat, especially on a Saturday morning when you were planning a relaxing day in the garden, on this occasion there are compensating benefits.
I was particularly pleased to discover that my antennae have lost none of their sensitivity with the passage of time.
A couple of weeks ago (see Strange goings-on) I drew attention to the almost indecent haste which accompanied the County Council's appointment of Dr Ryan's company, ORA International Ltd - advert in the Irish Independent 6 July 2000; closing date for applications19 July 2000; short-listing and interviews completed and letter of appointment dispatched on 1 August 2000, a mere eight working days later.
And this speedy conclusion by an organisation the takes three weeks to answer a standard letter!
My curiosity aroused, I employed an agent in Dublin go along to the National Library of Ireland and obtain a copy of this advert.
I was not surprised to find that the job specification was a perfect match for Dr Ryan's CV and that the advert was designed to be as unobtrusive as possible.
And now Dr Ryan's solicitors have confirmed that Dr Ryan and the Council were known to each other long before ORA was taken on as consultants.
They write: "Indeed, approximately one year prior to his appointment, representatives of Pembrokeshire County Council visited Dublin and were introduced to some of our client's achievements."
I am eager to find out who these "representatives" were.
Another claim made by Dr Ryan's solicitors is that I have said that: "[Dr Ryan] won his consultancy with Pembrokeshire County Council solely on the basis of his relationship with Cllr Hall and not on his merit as an experienced and enviable (sic) consultant ..."
I have, of course, never said any such thing, though I will naturally be interested to learn the details of this pre-engagement relationship in due course.
As far as my website is concerned ORA International Ltd was appointed on 1 August 2000 and the only evidence I have of any connection between Hall and Ryan relates to events after that date.
That evidence consists of an expense claim submitted by Cllr Hall which shows him spending the four days,16-19 November 2000, in Pembroke Dock in the company of Dr Ryan and a Mr Pat O'Sullivan, and documents obtained from Companies House which show that Hall and Ryan set up the company Euro-Ryall Ltd on 29 December 2000.
I also understand that Plaid Cymru leader, Cllr Michael Williams has had a letter from Dr Ryan's solicitors regarding comments he made in an email to the council's Head of Economic Development, Kefin Wakefield.
Cllr Williams is away at the moment so I haven't had the opportunity to discuss the matter with him but it will be fascinating to discover how his private email, to a council officer, came to find its way into Dr Ryan's possession.
Answer next week.

 

Animal Farm

The centenary of George Orwell's birth has brought forth an avalanche of serialisations of his books on the radio.
The other morning, having woken early, I was down in the kitchen at half-past-four enjoying a cup of tea and an Embassy filter when the smooth voice of Ben Kingsley came on the World Service reading an extract from 'Animal Farm'.
Arguments rage over whether 'Animal Farm' is a condemnation of Fascism or Communism.
My own view is that Orwell's arrow is aimed at totalitarianism i.e. both.
What Orwell understood was that totalitarian regimes are never more dangerous than when going about disguised in democratic garb.
Anyone who has ever attended a meeting of Pembrokeshire County Council will instantly recognise the following two scenarios.
At page 28 in my Penguin edition Orwell writes: "After the hoisting of the flag all the animals trooped into the big barn for a general assembly which was known as a meeting. Here the work of the coming week was planned out and resolutions were put forward and debated. It was always the pigs who put forward the resolutions. The other animals knew how to vote but could never think of any resolutions of their own."
And at page 42: "Many meetings were held in the big barn, and the pigs occupied themselves with planning out the work of the coming season. It had come to be accepted that the pigs, who were manifestly cleverer than the other animals, should decide all questions of farm policy, though their decisions had to be ratified by majority vote."

 

Kafka county

Last Tuesday afternoon I telephoned Kremlin on Cleddau to make arrangements to inspect the register of payments made to members.
On the following morning, I was presented with the payments from 1 April 2003 up to date.
What I actually wanted was the record of payments for the previous financial year, but I was told these had been sent off to be archived and were, therefore, unavailable.
Unfortunately, I didn't have a copy of the legislation with me though I was pretty certain that it gave me the right to see last year's records.
I pointed this out to the officer in charge of members' expenses and asked that the situation be resolved.
"Mr Lewis [Director of Finance] isn't here today", he replied.
I'm afraid I couldn't resist telling him that I had no recollection of any provision that required Mr Lewis' presence before the legislation was effective.
While there I asked whether, when the required information was eventually produced, I would be able to take photocopies and was told that I could only take notes.
On Thursday morning I was back on the phone with my copy of the "Local Authorities (Allowances for Members of County and County Borough Councils and National Park Authorities) (Wales) Regulations 2002 to hand.
Our man in the council offices had also been reading the regulations and agreed that I was entitled to see last year's figures and that a list would be prepared for me to collect.
He was less cooperative about the photo copies, insisting that I could only take notes.
So, I had to refer him to Section 18(3): "A person who is entitled to inspect a record under (2) may make a copy of any part of it upon payment of such reasonable fee as may be required by the authority."
"How can the council charge me a reasonable fee for scribbling in my notebook?" I asked.
He took my point.
On Friday morning I rang to see if the list was ready.
No, I was told, it would probably be Monday before it was completed.
So I went in and made my own list from the raw data (See Cllrs Expenses)
Now you know why Orwellian and Kafkaesque are two of my favourite adjectives.

 

Eddie's return

Last week, ex-Cllr Eddie Setterfield made a rare public appearance with a letter in the Mercury about Milford Haven's sewage treatment works.
Is this the first sign of a political comeback?
I think we should be told.
According to Eddie when elected to the council he was "... delighted to be appointed to the Port Health authority, working with south Pembrokeshire councillors to sort out the Haven. This resulted in a £12.5 million sewage works on the Docks, just behind the shopping complex."
Strangely, though I was on the Port Health Authority in 1992, when the new sewage works were first mooted, I have no recollection of Eddie's presence at meetings.
That is probably because, as my vast library of minutes reveals, he wasn't a member.
In any case, as I recall, the construction of the new treatment plant owed very little to the efforts of those of us on Port Health Authority and almost everything to a European Water Quality Directive that obliged Welsh Water to cease pumping raw sewage into the sea.
Old Grumpy is reminded of the days when this column was published in another place and Eddie was going about boasting about how he had fought tooth and nail to bring Tesco to Milford Haven.
Again, my extensive archive came in handy because, when I checked the minutes of the special planning committee meeting at which the Tesco application was determined, I found that two members had asked for their votes to be recorded against the application.
One of the two, as you've already guessed, was um, er, Cllr Eddie Setterfield.
It would seem that his four years away from the heady atmosphere of County Hall has done nothing to strengthen his grip on reality.

Water-rates

 

Last week the Western Telegraph ran an article on the Watersports Centre at Pembroke Dock in which it reported that it "is widely regarded as a premier facility but it is understood to have struggled financially."
"It is understood" is the phrase I use when I am not absolutely certain of the facts, or I wish to conceal the source of my information.
But there was no need for the Telegraph to be so coy because the estimates for Watersports are published in the County Council's minutes.
As can be seen below, struggled is putting it mildly.

 Year  Expenditure  Income  Loss
 1997/98  £256,785  £76,001*  £180,784
 1998/99  £281,000  £85,000*  £196,000
 1999/00  £552,685**  £402,150  £150,535
 2000/01  £589,419**  £220,130  £297,529
 2001/02  £545,355**  £246,690  £298,665
 2002/03  £461,660**  £185,000  £276,660

Notes
* Includes income of £26,250, Special Development Scheme Grant.
** Includes £140,000 capital financing/asset rental charges.
And the deficits would be even larger if it was not for the captive audience in the county's schools which allows the council to divert some of the education budget into the Watersports Centre.
This, and the other big loss makers: Scolton Manor; Ocean Lab (Goodwick): and Withybush Airfield set the Council Tax payer back the best part of £1million each year, or, I calculate, just over 20 quid on a band D Council Tax bill.
To be fair, the County Council inherited these particular white elephants from the zoos of its predecessor councils, though, after eight years in power, that excuse is wearing a bit thin.

Next week. The cost of Scolton Manor

 

Modesty forbids

I had intended to devote a long piece to last Saturday's rugby matches down under.
However, after Leighton Hewitt's shock exit from Wimbledon, the last thing my Aussie readers want to hear is an Englishman crowing.
Sorry to have to disappoint the rest of you.

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