October 10 2013

Open goal

COUNCILLOR'S CALL FOR MORE SECRECY blared the headline in the Milford Mercury over a story about a proposal by Cllr Tessa Hodgson that council ballots should be rather less public than they are at present.
The report that follows quotes me at some length supporting this call for more secrecy.
I should declare an interest at this point because Cllr Hodgson is my daughter.
And, just in case any readers are worried that I've abandoned my 20-year campaign, both as a journalist and elected member, for greater openness in PCC, I would have to say that this is one of the most misleading headlines I've ever seen.
As a council we normally only have one ballot per year - that to elect the vice-chairman.
The papers are handed out and members fill them in sitting at their desks. The committee clerk then comes round with a box into which the voting slips are placed.
Those familiar with the council chamber will know that the seating is arranged in tiers with the Cabinet on the back row overlooking the IPPG foot soldiers below.
The vice-chairman is automatically elevated to the chair the following year, so, given the vast powers invested in the chairman, this is a very important election.
It is also important that the chairman is impartial, which means it shouldn't be a party political appointment.
And it should be remembered that the chairman represents all the people of Pembrokeshire- not just the ruling cabal.
That said, it is worth noting that every chairman since the council's inception in 1996 has been a member of the IPG (now IPPG).
Indeed the chairmanship has become part of the vast web of patronage; financed by something in excess of £200,000 of taxpayers' (your) money, that keeps the IPPG afloat.
Being able to deliver the chairmanship (and the allowance that goes with it) to one of its members is all part of the IPPG's sales pitch.
Clearly, those IPPG members who depend on the Leader for their Special Responsibility Allowances, and seats on the national park committee (three grand a year), might be influenced in the way they vote by having the leader and his Cabinet looking over their shoulders.
All Cllr Hodgson was asking for was something resembling a free vote, with the meeting being adjourned for a few minutes to allow members to fill in their voting slips in private.
The report also quotes the Leader, Cllr Jamie Adams, as saying: "We are elected by the public and we are there to be accountable. A ballot is a dereliction of duty. I'm happy to be accountable to all my decisions and be judged on these."
Given what I've said above, this is straight from the Ministry of Silly Arguments because nobody was proposing the wholesale use of ballots, only that the few we do have are conducted to better standards than those found in Zimbabwe.
But could I remind you that "Accountable" Adams is the same fellow who only this week was telling readers of the Western Telegraph that he and he alone had the right to see the legal advice regarding the chief executive's pension arrangements.
The same Cllr Adams who took part in the secret meeting, in the privacy chief executive's office, where these pension arrangements were agreed.
And, yes, seeing as you ask, the same Cllr Adams who, with impeccable timing, slipped in four years worth of travel expense claims, just after the close of nominations for the 2012 elections (Perfect timing) (Journey into the past).
Of course, if the council was really interested in openness and accountability it would adopt an electronic voting system rather than, as at present, a show of hands.
That way, the voters could see exactly how their elected representatives had voted on the issues that concern them.
By happy coincidence Labour leader Cllr Paul Miller raised the subject of electronic voting at a meeting I attended earlier this week.
And, would you believe it, this was opposed, just as it has been on past occasions, by every IPPG member present, including Cllr Adams.
Hypocrisy on stilts?
As for Cllr Adams claim that he is happy to be judged on his decisions, all I can say is that judgment day may come sooner than he likes.

Need to know

This week's Western Telegraph devoted almost the whole of page 2 to an interview with Cllr Jamie Adams in which he tried to explain away the issues surrounding the controversial pension arrangements.
Labour leader Cllr Paul Miller got a brief mention at the bottom of the page.
So much for political balance.
This is the third time the WT has given Cllr Adams the run of the paper in less than 12 months - I hope this isn't the beginning of one of those personality cults that seem to be the norm in other authoritarian political systems.
What caught my eye was his statement that: "All legal opinion provided to the authority is done so on the basis that those that see it have a need to know the information. At the moment, apart from myself as corporate leader, I would consider that the majority of members do not have a need to know. They may have a wish to or a desire to know, I understand that."
Now, I was not the only person to take that to mean that he had seen the legal opinion, so I complained to the council about this apparently privileged access.
I was assured that he hadn't seen the document, and careful study reveals that he didn't actually say that he had.
All he actually said was that he, uniquely, had a need to know and that gave him the right to access the document if he so wished.
Of course, if only he has the right to see the advice, that is privileged access whether or not he exercises that right.
And if he "needs to know", then why hasn't he taken steps to find out?
Old Grumpy was in county hall on Wednesday and from the bits of gossip I picked up in the tearoom I was able to form a reasonable hypothesis for the reasons for this obviously rushed publicity blitz.
From what I can gather not a few of his own supporters are getting a bit nervous about the potential electoral fallout from the pensions affair.
And who can blame them when you read the comments on the various websites.
I am told that some of them are looking for a way out when it comes to the recorded vote at the upcoming extraordinary meeting.
Not wishing to disobey the party whip (which doesn't exist - they vote as a block because they always agree about everything) and not wishing to vote for something deeply unpopular, they are looking to use their ignorance of the legal advice as an excuse to abstain.
"Without all the information at my disposal, I didn't feel I could make a decision either way" they will rationalise.
And if IPPG members are good at anything it is rationalisation.
On this analysis, the piece in the paper was both reassurance and a public pep talk for those doubters who, by sitting on their hands, could upset the leader's apple cart.
It will be interesting to see if it works.

Painting the town red

As I have said previously, PCC doesn't seem to have fully bought in to the culture of openness that was supposed to have been ushered in by the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
Over the past few months, in my attempt to get to the bottom of the grants situation in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock, I have submitted several requests under the Act.
Of particular interest to me were the Bills of Quantities (BoQs) which form the basis for the tendering process.
My earlier requests brought forward copies of the BoQs showing the quantities, but with all the financial information (rates and totals) blacked out.
For those not familiar with this type of document each operation is itemised e.g.
 Operation  Quantity  Rate  Total
 Seal and apply two coats emulsion paint to ceilings  450 sq. m.  £4.50  £2475

The monetary figures were blacked out so they are made up.
I was also provided with drawings containing detailed specifications.
For instance, the BoQs for 25 Dimond Street ran to 17 pages the last of which contained a summary of all the totals from the individual Bills - brickwork, roofing, paintwork, drainage etc.
Of course, armed with a set of drawings, anyone with experience in the building industry, and a scale rule, can quite easily check these BoQs for accuracy.
For instance, in the example given above, I quickly calculated that the figure of 450 sq m was triple the area of ceilings in the building.
Well, I hear you say, anyone can make a mistake.
But then I checked the item for hack off and replaster the outside walls and found that the actual area (50 sq m) bore no relationship to the quantity in the BoQs (125 sq m) and even more less to the 300 sq m "one coat stabiliser and two coats microporous masonry paint" to be applied to these same walls.
Perhaps they had a contract to paint the whole street.
Now whether these discrepancies are the result of incompetence, or something more interesting, I cannot say for sure, but they have certainly stimulated my curiosity.
They also seem to have stimulated the council's defensive instincts because when I put in a request for the Bills of Quantities for the property next door: 27 Dimond Street Pembroke Dock, this is what came back.


Pages 1-16 nowhere to be seen.
So, no quantities for me to check with my scale rule.
The council did send a letter explaining its decision to provide even less information than previously.
It appears that the grant applicant, architects and the builders have a say in all this because:

"During the process of dealing with FOIA requests received and the consultation that then takes place with the third parties involved, the Authority has received representations from third parties, outlining their concerns relating to the release of information which is potentially useful to their competitors."

While there might be something in the argument that revealing the builder's rates might help his competitors, I am at a loss to understand how information on the area of plasterboard and paint in a particular building would be of much assistance.
Though it would, of course, be useful to me in comparing what is on the drawings and what is in the BoQ.
Based on my experience with 25 Dimond Street there is only a passing resemblance between the two.
I smell a cover-up.
The council explain:
The detail in the full documents is considered exempt under s.43 Commercial Interests, as disclosure of the detailed description would, or would likely prejudice the interests of the agent [architect] to the applicant (my emphasis) and the disclosure of the pricing mechanism would, or would likely prejudice the interests of the contractor of the applicant.

Clearly the applicant wouldn't be impressed if he found out that, due to the agent's inability to accurately take off the quantities, he was paying six times over for "microporous paint", thrice for painting ceilings and more than double for hacking off and replastering the exterior walls.
Though there might be another explanation because the council also says:
Additionally, maintaining the exemption is necessary to ensure that the Authority is able to implement the Commercial Property Grant Scheme. The Authority is mindful that it is in the wider public interest that every effort should be made to ensure that such schemes, which benefit our town centres, are able to continue.
What I take that to mean is that were all the facts about these grants to be revealed it might deter property developers from carrying out these projects.
I will leave you to work out why accurate BoQs which cut the developer's costs would deter them from carrying out these schemes.
While you're about it, you might give some thought as to how "it is in the wider public interest" for a developer to pay more than the job is worth, meanwhile trousering more in taxpayer-funded grant money than if they paid the correct price.
However, all is not lost because during the public audit inspection, I came across fully priced BoQs for two grant projects in Pembroke Dock: Coronation School and 16-19 Commercial Row.
It seems that the council had carelessly left these "commercially sensitive" documents lying around in the file for all to see.
And most revealing they are.
The file for Coronation School contains a final certificate signed by the architect and a priced BoQs to support it.
I should explain for those not familiar with the subject that a building contract typically involves three parties: client, architect and builder.
The client engages the architect who then seeks tenders from builders.
The architect will then recommend what he considers to be the most favourable tender to the client.
As the contract progresses the builder will apply for stage payments.
This is usually done by agreement between the builder and the architect with regard to which items in the BoQs have been completed or part-completed.
The architect will then issue a certificate to the client (copy to the builder) instructing him to pay the builder the certified amount.
The culmination of this process is the final certificate which will take account of any variations to the contract i.e.additions and omissions.
While the interim certificates may be rough estimates of work in progress the final certificate is an accurate account of the cost.
The final certificate for Coronation School contains some rather dubious figures.
For instance, there is £14,000 for rebuilding chimneys and turrets, scaffolding included.
This work has not been done.
There is another £7,000 approx for rainwater goods, though comparing what now exists with the photographs that accompanied the planning application show that the original rainwater goods remain largely undisturbed.
Which means that, unless the builder has mastered some new technique, the fascia boards (£8,000 plus) to which the gutters are fixed haven't been renewed either.
Then there is the £20,000 provisional sum for external works which included a quiet landscaped garden for the residents in the former playground.
That hasn't been done either.
I could go on, but you've probably got the picture by now.
But you are asking yourself: why would the client's architect be instructing him to pay the builder for work that hasn't been done?
Well, there is a fourth party in this contract - the grant provider - in this case the National Lottery Heritage Fund with PCC acting as administrator.
And the more the client pays the builder, or appears to pay the builder, the larger the grant he receives.
True to form, the county council is adopting its standard "move along there - nothing to see here" tactics.
I hear on the grapevine that the Cabinet had a meeting to discuss this last week when they were told by officers that all my allegations are false.
As Upton Sinclair observed: "It is difficult to make a man understand something when his job depends on him not understanding it."
He could just as easily have said that it is easy to make a man believe something when his job depends on him believing it.
And, as it was the Cabinet that approved the grants for 25 and 27 Dimond Street without thinking to ask how it was possible to spend close on £220,000 in doing up each of these two small retail properties, it is easy to see why they might be keen to turn a blind eye.
I realise that some of the Cabinet members are not the sharpest knives in the drawer, but it must have occurred to a least a couple of them that it was strange that nobody had sued me over what I have already written on this subject (Joining the dots).
And, here's a challenge for them: if Cabinet members believe that my allegations are baseless, why don't they report me to the Ombudsman for bringing the council, and the office of councillor, into disrepute.

The article below appeared in stop press during the past week.

October 8 2013

It is quite a while since Old Grumpy received one of those large plain brown envelopes containing top secret material.
Indeed, I was beginning to wonder if the IPPG had taken on an expert trapper who had consigned my velvety little friends to that great and glorious molehill in the sky.
So it was a great relief when I came downstairs this morning to find one of these mysterious packages lying on the doormat.
It contained an anonymised Ombudsman's letter which began:


After a brief review of the Ombudsman's powers it continues:

It is not clear what changes in the rules ex-Cllr Wildman had in mind, but it seems he is suggesting that it should be OK for Cabinet members to use council computers for party political purposes.
Welcome to democracy IPPG-style!
The Ombudsman goes on to say that Cllr Wildman has now resigned from the the council and

There seem to be two injustices in all this.
First ex-Cllr Wildman has been fingered for misuse of council computers while his confederate, deputy Leader Cllr Rob Lewis, seems to have emerged unscathed. This is doubly unfair because the fingerprints of Cllr Lewis (the election coordinator for the IPG (as it was then known)) are all over the illicitly produced election material.
Indeed, my understanding after talking to IPG insiders is that David Wildman only became involved after Cllr Lewis found himself having to contest his Martletwy seat.
And even more unfair is that the Partygate story only came to light as a result of diligent research by the author of that other website, but I got the plain brown envelope and the scoop.
Were it not for the fact that, just a couple of weeks ago, the young upstart had the temerity to refer to me on his website as "the old duffer", I might find it in my heart to feel sorry for him.

Back to home page