October 29 2001


The fat of the land

One of the things I always look out for during my annual trawl through the County Council's books is information on the Chairman's end of term bash, usually held at the Stone Hall Hotel, Welsh Hook.
In years past, I have had the advantage of a detailed invoice, which enabled me to tell the world that the guests had a taste for "Fondant au chou-fleur et brocoli'' and "Escargots", followed by "Filet de boeuf" and "Agneau" (whatever that is).
This year, it seems, word has gone out that these intimate personal details should be kept away from Old Grumpy's prying eyes.
The invoice states, simply, " Dinners for guests invited by Chairman, £996.70 (inc service) "
However, there is more than one way to skin a cat - I asked for a copy of the order.
It reads: "Chairman's Civic Heads Dinner at £23.50 per person x 18, and wine as req'd [their emphasis]. No. 5 at £15.60, Poully Fume + No. 16 at £18.70 Puisseguin St Emilion + accommodation for Councillor J Murphy and Councillor J Hutchinson - Wexford County Council - and sandwiches etc for approximately six chauffeurs".
While I, a poor a council taxpayer, have to sit at home with a £2.99 bottle of Chilean Merlot!
Comparison with the invoice from two years ago (£789.80) shows a sharp (21 per cent) escalation in the cost of this publicly funded banquet.
This appears to be almost all accounted for by a dramatic rise in the intake of fine wines.
Whereas, in 1998 they got by on £210 worth of booze, in 2000, it seems, more than £400 worth was "req'd".
That, at least, explains why they needed all those chauffeurs.
Unfortunately, my little ruse was of no avail in respect of the invoice for "Dinners and 1st November £369.15" because, I am informed, no order exists.
So, who has the authority to wander into Stone Hall and scoff the best part of 400 quid's worth of cordon bleu without an order?
I have no idea, but on the counterfoil attached to the invoice alongside the words "authorised for payment against approved budget" is the signature of the ubiquitous Director of Marketing and Communications, Dai "Spin" Thomas, whose wide-ranging activities will be examined in greater detail in a future edition.


Why are we waiting?

Last week I referred to the difficulties in seeing and hearing what is going on at meetings of the County Council.
From the public gallery you can see less than half the members and, unless you are a season ticket holder like Old Grumpy, you have no idea who is speaking most of the time, and even if you do recognise the voice it is odds on that you won't be able to understand what they are saying.
And, of course, as most matters are decided on a show of hands - the ruling Independents having voted down a Labour proposal for electronic voting - members of the public cannot know how their elected representatives have voted.
These totally inadequate arrangements prompted me to write to the authority's Monitoring Officer, Huw James, suggesting that, given these deficiencies, it was at least arguable that the public's statutory right to attend meetings was not being fully met.
After all, if you can neither see nor hear what is taking place is there any meaningful sense in which you can be said to be present at the meeting.
Mr James' prompt reply encouraged me to think that my complaint was being taken seriously.
His letter concluded: "The adjustments needed to improve acoustics is part of an ongoing review into the workings of the new Council Chamber and the visibility issue you raise is also part of that review. When we have reached some conclusions on this latter issue I shall send you a further note".
That was dated 16 March 2000 and nothing has been heard since.
I'll just have to be patient, I suppose.
Or splash out on a periscope!


... and waiting

Even greater patience is required, so it seems, when dealing with the County Council's Finance Department with which I have been in dispute for the past five years over the provision of computer facilities during the annual public audit inspection.
Back in the good old days of Preseli Pembrokeshire District Council, a computer terminal was provided which made inspection of the books a fairly simple, straightforward operation.
For instance, if you wished to find out about the council's dealings with Joe Bloggs and Co you just typed in the name, pressed the return key and the info would appear on the screen.
Under the present set-up you can either search for Bloggs and Co in a foot high pile of computer printouts (not even in alphabetical order) or make a written request for the details and wait three or more days for a reply.
When I first took up this issue five years ago, I was told that the reason computer access had been withdrawn was that the creditors system and personal information about staff were on the same database and that the authority had a legal duty "to secure the confidentiality of staff records".
Fair enough! But Preseli PDC had managed to keep the systems apart, so why not the County Council?
In October 1998 I wrote to the Director of Finance, Mark Lewis, expressing my dissatisfaction with the present set up and was pleasantly surprised to receive a reply by return post that seemed to indicate that the problem was being addressed.
"A new on-line 'creditor system' will be introduced by the Department during the latter part of this year." Mr Lewis wrote. "The new database for the system is programmed to facilitate on-line access to non-personal creditor payments. The system will be operational for the year 1999/2000."
Last October, when I turned up at Pier House, the promised computer access was not available.
Nor was it when I went to inspect the books four weeks ago.
Whether this reflects incompetence or contempt for the public I will leave you to judge.

Only a game

Over the past 20 years, I've had a good deal of fun at the expense of my Welsh friends with remarks such
as: "It's a good job you weren't playing the whole of Samoa"; "Have you heard the one about the man who took his grandson to the folk museum at St Fagans - to see the Welsh Grand Slam sweater."; and "No wonder the WRU were campaigning to get Italy into the tournament".
Unfortunately the boot is now firmly on the other foot as England have blown it on the final day of the season for the third year in succession and Old Grumpy will now have to wait until next April, at least, to wear the coveted Grand Slam sweater.
Who will rid me of these troublesome Celts?
And things could get worse - England's final match next season is against Italy.
Still, as I keep telling myself, it's only a game. Isn't it?
The reason I'm so hung up about my lack of a Grand Slam sweater is that I came to live in Wales on 1966 - right at the beginning of a period of Welsh domination that lasted for 13 miserable years.
Proud Welshman could be seen in every club and bar with sweaters embroidered with the team's battle honours stretching back over several years.
This period of Welsh supremacy was ended when Billy Beaumont's England ground their way to a Grand Slam in 1980.
I think it was then that Ireland's own Terry O'Neill turned up in Haverfordwest Cricket Club with a sweater bearing the legend 1979-80 TYWWFA.
It wasn't long before an unsuspecting Welshman enquired as to the meaning of this acronym.
"The Year Wales Won F All" Terry told him triumphantly.


Open secret

Whenever I go to the off-licence to buy a £2.99 bottle of Chilean Merlot the person behind the counter invariably asks: "Would you like it wrapped?"
"No need", I say, "everybody knows the wife likes a drink".


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