May 7 2009

Groupies

A modest proposal by county councillor Bob Kilmister: that members whose Notices of Motion were remitted to cabinet for consideration should have the right to address that august body on the merits of their proposition, was torpedoed by the ruling group's block vote today.
During the course of the "debate", I pointed out that members already had this right of audience in respect of those NoMs remitted to the corporate governance committee and, in the interests of consistency, it seemed perfectly reasonable that similar rules should apply to Cabinet.
I ventured the opinion that it was difficult to understand why members of the Independent POLITICAL Group would want to vote it down.
My emphasis on the POLITICAL had the desired effect because up jumped Cllr Clive Collins to tell the meeting that he had never been a member of a political party and that he was a member of the Independent Group not the Independent Political Group.
Now it may be true that Cllr Collins had never been a member of a political party, though I would draw attention to his photo that appeared on a leaflet put out by Tory AM Angela Burns during the last Assembly election campaign.
And I understand that such a photograph would not be published without the subject's consent.
However, if that seems a little conjectural, I have much stronger evidence of his membership of a political group (Party animals).
You will notice that the words "political group" appear four times on the form that Cllr Collins signed.
Although not easy to decipher, his signature is to be found in the second column, next to bottom.
It would seem either that he didn't read the document before adding his name, or he's a bit slow on the uptake.

Old story

The Freedom of Information Act has been a boon to investigative journalism and come the summer we will be able to view the receipts submitted by our MPs in support of their expense claims for second homes.
These are said to include a large amount of cash claimed for a sauna and other items of expenditure which, if rumour is to be believed, may lead to the resignation of several 'honourable' members.
That said, the Act has its faults - not least the length of time public bodies are allowed to release information and the opportunities for foot-dragging that this entails.
This means that the Act is only really helpful for stories with evergreen properties (MP's expenses) .
Subjects with more immediacy have long grown cold and old before the information comes to light.
For instance, I wrote to Pembrokeshire County Council on 13 March seeking information on the dealings between the council, Welsh Assembly and Milford Haven Port Authority regarding the Mine Depot at Blackbridge Milford Haven.
Under the terms of the Act, the council had 20 working days to reply.
On 9 April the council e-mailed to say that: "The information you requested is covered by S43, commercial interests, and is subject to the Public Interest Test. Due to the nature of the requested information this test has to be applied to every document and as a consequence the time needed to complete this will exceed the initial 20 working days but will be completed as soon as possible. A reply to your request will be sent upon completion of the Test."
Not surprisingly, I have received an e-mail telling me that my request has failed the test and informing me how to appeal to the council's own appeal panel.
That will take another month, at least, and only after the appeal panel has upheld the council's initial decision, which, in my experience, it inevitably does, will I be able to appeal to the Information Commissioner.
And appeals to the Information Commissioner can take a year or more to be determined.
In the meantime, the county council and MHPA can continue with whatever plans they have, uninterrupted by anything as inconvenient as public accountability and scrutiny (Behind the scenes).
Fortunately, thanks to my high-level mole inside MHPA, I have a good idea of what is going on and will keep you posted.
After all, the Mine Depot is your property.

Pool party

There was a large group of people from St Davids outside county hall this morning protesting against the closure of the city's swimming pool.
One lady I spoke to told me that she understood the Cabinet's decision was going to be called in by the scrutiny committee.
Whoever told her this was ignorant of the council's constitution which requires requests for call-ins to be made within three days of the Cabinet decision.
Call-in is triggered by a written request to the head of legal services by the chairman or four members of the scrutiny committee.
At its meeting on 1 December 2008 Cabinet resolved: That the provision of a new Sports Hall and fitness suite on the site of the existing Swimming Pool, using the deficit funding of the pool be agreed, subject to review of the decision if any community organisation(s) bring forward by 1 February 2009 a sustainable and deliverable business plan resulting in no overall additional cost to this Authority and without prejudicing the provision of the new Sports Hall.

And on 20 April 2009 cabinet resolved: That the appointment of Cotton Ltd to undertake the design and construction of a new Sports Hall and Fitness Suite at Ysgol Dewi Sant be agreed in accordance with Paragraph 4 (c)(ii) of Standing Orders Relating to Contracts.

So, the call-in bird has long flown the nest.
The county council member for St Davids is a member of the children and young persons scrutiny committee which could have called in this decision.
It would be interesting to know what efforts he made either to persuade the chairman to exercise his powers or, alternatively, to collect the four signatures necessary.
As reported last week, Cllr George had, rather belatedly, put down a question on the subject for today's council meeting (Inaction man).
Although this was shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted it did provide Cllr Leslie Raymond and himself with the opportunity to make long speeches in support of the pool for the benefit of their constituents in the public gallery.
The only problem is that they were supposed to be asking questions so this was in utter disregard of standing orders.
The Chairman looked a bit embarrassed but did nothing to halt this blatant politicking.
And it was a complete waste of time because the decision to close the pool was already irrevocable.
I hope their constituents were suitably impressed by this charade.

Under fire

The item on the St Davids pool also gave the Leader, Cllr John Davies, the opportunity to have a pop at what I had written about the decision to award the sports hall contract to Cotton Ltd without going out to tender Best value?).
In answer to a question by Tory member David Howlett, the Leader said that, contrary to what some people were saying [me] the rates being negotiated with Cotton Ltd reflected the current economic conditions.
He then came out with some typically windy rhetoric about people dealing with facts not fiction..
However, what I wrote about the subject (Best value?) (No contest) was derives from the report to Cabinet which said the St Davids contract would be "delivered at unit rates extracted from the Haverforwest Leisure Centre contract".
Note: extracted from, not, based on.
Seems clear enough to me.
I also came under attack from Cllr Peter Stock when I tried to slightly modify a proposition that I had voted for at the corporate governance committee of which he is chairman.
There had been a full debate Cllr Stock said and he couldn't understand why I should now want to go back on my earlier decision.
I know it is difficult for people like Cllr Stock to understand, but some people are capable of entertaining the idea that they may be wrong about certain of their assumptions.
In this case it followed a call from a Labour member who pointed out certain flaws in the corporate governance committee's decision.
It would be much simpler, of course, to have a fixed and immutable set of ideas to carry you through life, but education teaches you to be constantly scanning your opinions for error.
And when you find one you repair the software accordingly.
In human terms this is called changing your mind.
When I pointed this out, Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse was heard to say: "Members will be be surprised to learn that the councillor has a mind to change."
That, I suppose, is what passes for humour in Angle.

The yes-man cometh

A couple of months ago, I reported that Cllr Malcolm Calver had been removed from the board of governors of St Florence School after a vote by his fellow members who, according to the minutes, had unspecified "concerns" about his remaining on the body (Out of favour).
It is clear from various blogs that appear e.g. (http://manorbiertruthblog.blogspot.com/) that Cllr Calver is not universally popular though it should be said that, despite the poison disseminated on the Web, he still managed to attract enough support at the last election to retain his seat on the county council.
Must be those legs!!!
One of the bones of contention was Cllr Calver's refusal to support the campaign against night firing at the Manorbier range.
His enemies claimed that his duty was to throw his weight behind local opinion while he maintained that it was to see that planning policy was followed.
I briefly got drawn into this argument when I wrote a letter to the Tenby Observer taking Cllr Calver's side, after which I was accused of being undemocratic.
However, I am pleased to report that no less an authority than the county council's Monitoring Officer has said that public opinion has no bearing on the determination of planning applications.
Though, of course, public opinion does have a bearing on the framing of the original policy.
Cllr Calver's problem is that he doesn't always fall in with the consensus view, which makes him unpopular with those who cannot bear to be contradicted.
His other problem is that he is often right, which annoys them even more.
You may have read in a recent edition of the Western Telegraph that Manorbier Community Council, of which he is a member, has racked up bills for some £50,000 in respect of a contractual dispute with ICT marketing and a wrongful dismissal action brought by its former clerk..
In both these cases, Cllr Calver consistently argued that the council should reach an early settlement to avoid costs.
I understand that the clerk's case was settled out of court and Tony Wales, who was chairman of MCC when these events took place, is now arguing that this means that it hasn't been proved that the clerk was wrongfully dismissed.
Strictly speaking, this is true.
But, having decided to throw in the towel, after being advised that your case won't stand up in court, it needs sophistry of a high order to then argue that you weren't in the wrong.
Unfortunately, modern society is bedevilled by a form of political correctness that demands that the only valid ideas are the ones promoted by those in power, and anyone who disagrees is not only wrong but dangerous.
For my money that is at the heart of what went wrong with the banks where all-powerful chief executives were allowed to impose their will on supine board members who feared they might be sacked if they rocked the boat.
Indeed the Financial Services Authority is currently investigating allegations by Labour peer Lord Foulkes that non-executives at the Royal Bank of Scotland had been warned that "their position would be jeopardised if they continued to ask awkward questions”.
I think it was Albert Einstein who said that all progress is down to troublemakers.
He might have added like himself who overturned the consensus around Newtonian physics with the Theory of Relativity.
That is not to say that troublemakers are always right, merely that, by definition, they are the only ones who ever come up with anything new.
And troublemakers, even when wrong, provide a valuable service by forcing those in power to re-examine their assumptions to make sure they are correct.
For the latest on this saga, go to http://www.manorbier.com/

Give and take

I have just noticed "Mercury abroad" which features a picture of the town's mayor, Cllr John Roberts, reading a copy of the paper in front of a large portrait of the Emir of Qatar.
I trust that, given the close relationship between Qatar and Milford Haven, the Qatar Times will be carrying a picture of the Emir genuflecting before the mayor's picture in Milford Haven Town Hall.
It should be easy for the Emir to arrange because, being an absolute Monarch, he controls the press, and everything else in his desert Kingdom.

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