October 15 2009

 

The half of it

For those of you who are getting bored with the issue, I promise that, after this week, the words Manorbier Community Council (MCC) will not again appear in this column until after Christmas, at the earliest.
However, given the number of e-mails I have received following the Western Telegraph's page 12 report "Website author accused of slur" I can't resist one final attempt to set the record straight.
The alleged slur concerns the statement in my column of August 6 (Abuse of power) when I wrote: "It would be going too far to describe these people as fascists, but their tactics, if not their shirts, have a distinctly brown tinge.
The WT reports that my comments were made "after Cllr Hughes [chairman MCC] read out a letter from the Ombudsman stating that he was investigating Manorbier councillor Malcolm Calver etc, etc" (see Above criticism).
This is true, but not true because, as logicians say, language is systematically ambiguous.
And, according to my dictionary, "after" has at last 14 meanings.
The two that concern us here are "following in time" and "as a consequence of" e.g. I will go after you" and "after what you just said, I have no alternative but to complain to the Ombudsman".
Now, in the first sense of the word, my comments were made several days "after" Cllr Hughes read out the letter from the Ombudsman, but, in the second sense, they followed from reading out of a letter from Mr Charles Cochrane.
This is a matter of fact, not opinion, as can be seen by reading the two articles on my August 6 blog ( Above criticism)(Abuse of power).
The WT seems to have understood this because it also reports that "Old Grumpy also queried the motive of Cllr Hughes in reading out another letter in an attempt to embarrass Cllr Calver" [the Cochrane letter] though, for whatever reason, it makes no attempt to draw any distinction between my treatment of the two letters.
The WT also quotes a Cllr Chris Haynes as saying: "He doesn't belong to this community and doesn't know what this community council does other than from whoever he hears it."
Now, to people like Cllr Haynes this might present itself as a knock-down argument, but the fact is that where I live has no bearing on the truth or falsehood of any statements I might make.
Indeed if the only things we were allowed to comment on were those of which we had direct experience we would have very little to talk about.
I don't live in Zimbabwe, Russia or China, though I am quite prepared to believe reports I read in the newspapers about the corrupt political systems that hold sway in such places.
It is interesting to note that, amid all this bluster, there is no attempt to contest the accuracy of my account , albeit secondhand, of what occurred at the meeting where these letters were read out.
And it is noticeable that, for whatever reason, the WT makes no mention of Cllr Haynes threatening remarks: "You are getting on my nerves - don't get on my nerves" directed at Cllr Calver (see Oct 8).
Finally, the WT reports that the chairman threatened to have me thrown out of the meeting if I interrupted the proceedings again.
This is true.
But what the report omits to mention is that my interventions were directed at Cllr Hughes' apparent ignorance of constitutional procedure, particularly his twice-uttered claim that he had written to me "on behalf of Manorbier Community Council".
As I pointed out, before I was threatened with ejection, MCC had never discussed the matter before that night so he couldn't have been acting on the council's behalf.
Unfortunately, Cllr Hughes and his ilk regard this sort of argument as nitpicking as they do Cllr Calver's insistence that resolutions of the council be properly recorded in the minutes.

Weak constitution

According to my dictionary, a constitution is "The body of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or organisation is governed."
Many of these principles involve restrictions on the activities of those in power.
As a result, those who lust after unlimited power find constitutions something of a nuisance.
And as it is, almost exclusively, ruling majorities that have the power to change constitutions, it follows that ruling majorities are the biggest threat to constitutional government under the rule of law.
In his great book "The Third Reich" Professor Michael Burleigh in a section entitled "The Demise of the Rule of Law" describes how Hitler used his majority in the Bundestag to set about dismantling Germany's democratic constitution from the inside.
He forced through the Enabling Laws which allowed the Nazis to alter the constitution without parliamentary approval.
Prof Burleigh writes: "In democracies, constitutional amendments are especially solemn moments; here they were easier than changing the traffic regulations."
As I learned from the article above, you have to be careful about using the F-word when criticising local politicians, and Nazi is completely off-limits.
However, I long ago came to the conclusion that ruling groups, regardless of party, invariably demonstrate a similar attitude to constitutions as that described by Prof Burleigh.
They insist that, as the elected government, they are carrying out the will of the people and that constitutional obstacles should not be allowed to stand in the way.
So, both Tory and Labour governments complain loudly when the unelected (their emphasis) House of Lords refuses to rubber stamp their legislation; blithely ignoring the fact that, for most types of legislation, HoL approval is a requirement of the British constitution.
Nearer to home, the Leader of the county council uses his massive Independent Political Group majority to bolster his payroll vote with the introduction of four assistant Cabinet posts and, when it no longer suits him, to abolish them (Full circle and follow the links); to increase the number of members on the four scrutiny committees from 10 to 12 (seven of the eight newly-created posts going to members of his own party); and to subvert the constitution when one of his own cronies is under threat from a no-confidence vote (Dodging the column).


Minute by minute

 

I always thought it was Groucho Marx who said: "I don't care who's in the majority, as long as I get to write the minutes" but when I checked with the BBC's "Quote - Unquote" programme they were unable to attribute this quotation to anyone.
So, until such time as somebody comes up with a better idea, I am claiming it for myself.
The minutes of meetings are important because they are an authoritative, if not always true or comprehensive, account of what went on.
Old Grumpy is always struck by the difference between the minimalist records of Pembrokeshire County Council meetings and the minutes of the National Park Authority which make some attempt to give at least a flavour of the debate.
Most of the time, at least.
I always find it interesting to compare the minutes of meetings I have attended with my own recollection of events.
Especially when I have have written something about the meeting; as was the case with the National Park Meeting of 24 June 2009 when Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse's claim for indemnity for legal fees was debated.
The interesting part of the meeting involved the question of excluding the public from the proceedings when, despite the clearest possible advice of both the NP authority's monitoring officer and solicitor that he had a prejudicial interest in the matter before the committee, Cllr Allen-Mirehouse failed/refused to withdraw from the chamber.

My take on this meeting, published the following day, can be found at (Interesting times)

The National park minutes record:

18. Exclusion of the public
The Monitoring Officer reported that he considered that the item referred to under Minute 20 below should be exempt from disclosure to the public, and he presented to Members the obligatory request form, which detailed his reasons.

The Head of Legal Services acknowledged that there was a difficult balance to be struck in this matter, but advised that - at this stage - he had to support the Monitoring Officer's reasons for recommending that the public be excluded from the meeting. He added, however, that should Members decide to expend public funds, then the papers and financial details should be made available to the public to scrutinise.

Councillor M Williams then proposed that a recorded vote be taken, and this was supported by Ms C Gwyther and Messrs JA Brinsden, T Giles and SL Hancock.

It was RESOLVED that the public be excluded from the meeting as exempt information, as defined in Paragraphs 12, 13 and 14 of Part 4 of Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972, would be disclosed.

(Councillor JS Allen-Mirehouse took no part in the discussion or voting thereon.)

You will notice that there is no mention, whatsoever, of anything said by the officers or members.

Contrast that with the minutes of the meeting of 29 July when exactly the same item (exclusion of the public) on exactly the same subject (Cllr John Allen-Mirehouse's claim for indemnity in respect of legal fees) was debated.
A complete version of these minutes can be found on the National Parks website www.pcnpa.org.uk click on committees and National Park Authority - meeting 21/09/09
.
They include the following:
Councillor JA Brinsden, however, pointed out that the National Park Authority was financed through the public purse and he proposed, therefore, that the entire process be held in the public domain. It was only right and proper that any debate was open and transparent and, as there was no reference to the individual concerned or to their means, the debate should be held in open session.

Councillor RM Lewis [Cllr Allen-Mirehouse's PCC cabinet colleague] accepted the advice of officers, and stated that Members had no option at present but to consider the matter in private. He proposed that the public be excluded from the meeting, and his proposition was seconded by Councillor PJ Morgan [also a cabinet colleague].

Ms C Gwyther stated that she had struggled with this issue, but had come to the conclusion that she would be comfortable discussing this matter in private only if the reports associated with the matter were made public in the event that a payment was awarded to the Member concerned. The Monitoring Officer assured Members that all the documentation before Members, including the annexes to the reports, would be placed in the public domain should a payment be awarded.

Councillor M Williams went on to say that the spotlight was on public scrutiny and, as a decision would be reached in private, it would not show how Members arrived at their decision. He seconded Councillor Brinsden's proposal that the matter be held in public.

Members resolved to exclude the public. Cllrs Brinsden and Williams voting against.
Now, the only difference between these two meetings, as far as I can discern, is that Cllr Allen-Mirehouse wasn't present at the one on July 29 so the question of whether he should declare an interest didn't arise.
And if a full report of what was said by the solicitor and monitoring officer at the June meeting was included in the minutes it would provide compelling evidence to support a complaint to the Ombudsman.
Furthermore, paragraph 6.(1) (c) of the Code of Conduct provides that members ". . . must report to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales and to your authority's monitoring officer any conduct by another member which you reasonably believe breaches this code of conduct".
Failure to report such a matter will itself constitute a breach of the Code.
This provision is, presumably, intended to discourage the sort of mutual backscratching that is all too common.
And, of course, it would be difficult for members to argue that thy didn't "reasonably believe" there had been a breach, if, in addition to hearing what the solicitor and monitoring officer had to say at the meeting, it was also recorded in the minutes.
Drawing the institutional wagons into defensive formation to ward off the circling Indians?


Simple solution

The decision not to send Sea The Stars to America to contest the Breeders Cup is a clear case of letting discretion be the better part of valour.The horse has already won the 2000 guineas, Derby and Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe and is probably worth over £50 million, so why risk his reputation for invincibility by running him in the ultra-competitive American race.
A diary item in the Daily Telegraph's financial pages had a nice angle on the story: "All the same, the nag is living proof of a well thought-out incentive scheme. Perform on the track and, at the tender age of three, you retire to a life at stud. Fail and you're gelded and put over the jumps. Maybe we're over-complicating the debate on bankers' bonuses."

Poor but modest

We still await the knock on the door from the London art dealer looking to buy one, or preferably more, of Grumpette's paintings.
There is obviously serious money in this painting racket as I discovered when I looked up Maggi Hambling on the Web after hearing her interviewed on this morning's 'Today' programme. Her website advertises pictures of Stephen Fry for £645 (£720 framed) + £10 p&p and that's just for a print of which, the blurb informs us, only 100 have been produced.
I must admit that what I can see of Ms Hambling's pics on the Web leaves me a bit underwhelmed.
Indeed, there is a not dissimilar effort blue tacked to our fridge door which was knocked up in a few minutes by our six-year-old grandson.
But, at nearly 700 quid for an unframed, mass-produced print, you can't knock it.
Listening to Ms Hambling's interview it suddenly dawned on me that what Grumpette lacks is a USP - unique selling point to those of you unfamiliar with marketing jargon.
Damien Hurst has his pickled sharks and Tracie Emin her unmade bed.
In Maggi's case it is rising every morning at 5am to walk on the shore near her Suffolk home; drawing inspiration from the sea.
The alarm has been reset, so if you see Grumpette wandering about on Gellyswick beach at the crack of dawn you know what it's about.
I advised that if she really wants to get noticed she should parade up and down in the nude - being at one with nature and all that.
She suggested I might like to join her.
On reflection, it might be better if we continue living in a state of genteel poverty.

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