16 March 2004


Gone to Ground

Two weeks ago, the Mercury carried a front page splash after Old Grumpy provided a copy of a letter about the relationship between Cllr Brian Hall and Dr Michael Ryan.
The council responded with a two line statement denying any wrongdoing.
Last week the Mercury tried to follow up the story by asking the Leader, Cllr Maurice Hughes, to comment.
As predicted last week, His Leadership had taken to his bunker.
He told the Mercury that, while he was aware of its front-page story, and the existence of the letter from Dr Ryan to Cllr Hall on which the allegations were founded, he had seen neither the paper or the letter.
As a whole week had passed since a copy of the letter was sent to County Hall, and six days since the appearance of the front-page story, this seems a highly unlikely tale.
This is not the first time Cllr Hughes has been in denial (see Pot and kettle).
But, with the elections less than three months away, Cllr Hughes can't keep hiding behind his front door.
After all, as we are paying him £36,000 to run the council, we have a right to expect him to know what's going on.

The highwaymen

Last week, I sent a letter to the Mercury but, disappointingly, they couldn't find room to publish it.
Unfortunately, I picked a week when there was stiff competition for space on the letters' page with contributions from two former chairman of the county council's highways committee: Cllr Brian Hall and ex-Cllr Eddie Setterfield.
I'm afraid Eddie's dissertation on speed cameras was way over my head, though I got the impression that he was promoting the view that speed kills.
At least he is consistent on this subject.
Way back in the good old days of Preseli District Council members were paid an attendance allowance of £12.40 for a four-hour shift "including reasonable travelling time". If the time away from home exceeded four hours the allowance was doubled.
This meant that, if the meeting + travelling time totalled four-and-a-quarter hours, the member picked up an extra £12.40 (£49.60 an hour).
On inspecting Eddie's expense claims, during the public audit, I noticed he was in the habit of leaving Milford at 9 am to attend 10 o'clock meetings in Haverforwest.
Thus any meeting that lasted beyond 12 noon (plus an hour to drive home) took him into double-time country.
At the time, Eddie was Chairman of the Dyfed Road Safety Committee and the obvious explanation for this driving back and forth to Haverfordwest at 8 mph was that he was slowing down the traffic in order to prevent accidents.
Imagine my disillusionment when I looked at the books the following year and found that an alert auditor had compelled him to pay back the £140 he had over-claimed.
A mole tells me that Eddie intends to stand at the next election and, to facilitate informed choice, I will be collecting together all my previous scribblings on this fascinating phenomena.
As an aperitif, I offer (Polo neck).
Cllr Hall's letter was part explanation for his absence from Cabinet meetings and part attack on the former labour Leader on the council, David Edwards.
Readers may recall that a company of which Mr Edwards was a director was wound up by Customs and Excise because of unpaid VAT.
This story was fed to the press by Cllr Hall who displayed a remarkably detailed knowledge of the case (see ... sauce for the gander) when he rang me to tell me about it.
I did send a transcript of our conversation to the authority's Monitoring Officer who wrote back to say that Cllr Hall was suffering from a bout of amnesia.
However, anticipating that he would deny all knowledge if challenged, I took the precaution of taping our little chat.

The power of suppress


Old Grumpy was pleasantly surprised to see that Jackie Lawrence and Nick Ainger are taking an interest in the Hall/Ryan affair.
Last week they put out a joint press release regarding threats of legal action against Cllr Michael Williams by Cllr Brian Hall's business partner Dr Michael Ryan.
This threatened action is based on the contents of an e-mail from Cllr Williams to the County Council's Head of Economic Development, Mr Kefin Wakefield, in which Cllr Williams raised questions about Dr Ryan's appointment and qualifications.
On 16 May 2003 this private e-mail was sent on to Dr Ryan by the authority's Head of Marketing and Communications, Mr David Thomas.
In addition to forwarding Cllr Williams' email, Mr Thomas added the helpful message: "Michael [Ryan], this was the reply to Kefin's email re the trip to Poland. I believe this is not only offensive but that it is also libelous. I shall give you a ring to discuss. Cheers Dave."
I understand that Mr Thomas claims that he was expressing a personal opinion though it is difficult to see how that could be the case as the e-mail was written in council time, and sent using a council computer.
Whether Dr Ryan relied on Mr Thomas' legal advice or arrived independently at his decision is largely immaterial but, on 21 June, Cllr Williams received a letter from Dr Ryan's solicitor informing him that if he didn't apologise, retract, do a half-turn and three somersaults while balancing a pint of bitter on his head, or whatever, he would be sued within an inch of his life.
Old Grumpy received a similar letter at the same time.
Now that our two MPs have taken up the cudgels it will be interesting to see if the Western Telegraph breaks its Trappist silence on the case.
A fortnight ago the Mercury's front page carried a detailed account of Hall and Ryan's business dealings but its sister paper, the Telegraph, couldn't even find room for a single paragraph.
Does Cllr Hall have friends in the Merlins Bridge Lubianka?
I think we should be told!

Dangerous times

The elections in Russia and Spain have left the world in a vastly different state than it was even a week ago.
President Putin won the Russian poll with a massive majority and immediately promised to build a pluralist society with a free press.
As he has spent the last four years strengthening his grip on power and curbing press freedom we should take these promises with a pinch of salt.
You can take the man out of the KGB, but you can't take the KGB out of the man.
I heard someone on the radio describe the system in Putin's Russia as "managed democracy".
This is something similar to what we have in Pembrokeshire where debate is actively discouraged and decisions taken behind closed doors are glossed with respectability by a sham democratic process.
The only difference that I can see is that Putin has to at least go through the motions of standing for election.
While the Russian result was widely forecast, that in Spain came as something as a shock as the opinion polls had consistently predicted a win for the ruling conservatives.
However, the terrible slaughter in Madrid changed all that and the socialists romped to victory.
Opinions differ as to the reason behind this abrupt turnaround.
The optimistic view is that the Spanish people punished the ruling party for trying to mislead them over the identity of the perpetrators.
If that is the case, that is a healthy development because the least we can expect from our elected representatives is that they tell us the truth.
The other, less palatable explanation is that the swing in the polls was due to Spain's support for the war in Iraq.
Not support for the war itself - immediately before the bombing the opinion polls showed a healthy lead for the conservatives despite 90% of the Spanish people being anti-war - but the perception that the violence visited on the people of Madrid last Thursday was revenge for Spain's involvement in Iraq.
If that view is correct, it means that Islamic terrorists have, in effect, overthrown the government of one of Western Europe's largest democracies.
And, even if it isn't correct, that is how it will be sold on the Arab street.
They'll be back for more.

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