Saturday 27 October 2012

An official record

Writing minutes of meetings is as much an art as a science. There are lots of guides available giving sometimes conflicting advice, but in essence they should be a brief record of what was discussed, what was agreed, who is responsible for any follow-up actions, and not least they should be strictly neutral.

When the subject has come up in meetings of Carmarthenshire County Council in the past, the Chief Executive has explained that minutes should not be verbatim accounts of who said what, but should merely record the points discussed and what was agreed. No mention of neutrality.

Since it is extremely rare for any of the agenda items at council meetings not to be agreed, the logical outcome would simply be a copy of the agenda with the word "Approved" under each item, and for the most part that is what we get from the County Council. In the case of the most recent meeting of the full council on 10 October, for example, 12 of the 17 items listed were "resolved that they be received" (approved to you and me).

Three further items were standard apologies, announcements and declarations of interest.

So that leaves two items with a bit of wording. The first concerns a non-contentious motion dealing with standards in education which was approved unanimously. The other concerns a discussion on the council's Annual Report and Improvement Plan.

As good minute writers know, you should be very careful in your use of adjectives if your aim is to be neutral. Adjectives add colour, and should be used sparingly if at all.

No such qualms in County Hall, however. In the first line of the report on the discussion, we are told that the council is not just committed, but deeply committed to its goals.

Someone, we are not told who, "pointed out" (not a neutral term) that the council maintains an exciting investment programme, and the Residents Satisfaction Survey, which showed an approval rating of 82%, was an incredible achievement.

If we stick with the standard dictionary definition of incredible, then the minutes were accurate, although somehow that is probably not what the minute taker meant.

Next we are told that some councillors wanted to know if the council's £10.8 million savings target for 2011-12 had been delivered. We are not told what the answer was, and so can probably assume that it was not.

There are a couple of hints that not everybody was quite bowled over by these glossy documents, which told us that the people of Carmarthenshire are healthier, happier, richer and more fulfilled than ever before, and that things are set to get even better. The minutes note in response that almost everything set out in the report had been achieved.

As for the jargon which people complained about (actually there were complaints about the use of glossy colour pictures and silly symbols, but that complaint was not noted), the minutes say merely that the Chief executive explained that these documents were really meant for the eyes of regulators and government departments rather than the public.

Which leaves us wondering whether the bureaucrats in Cardiff really need lots of pictures of happy, smiling people, smiley faces and pictures of keys to symbolise key targets.

Thanks are then offered to the Council's staff for the authority's excellent performance last year.

And that's it.

Not a single word appears in the minutes of the various attempts made by councillors to force a discussion of the misuse of council resources in the case of the Sainsbury's press release, although this took up quite a bit of time. No mention is made of the attempt by Cllr Siân Caiach to raise concerns about pollution in the Burry inlet, and no mention is made of an attempt to table an emergency motion.

None of that happened, according to the official record.

Another councillor who complained about the extremely high cost of photocopying in the county's libraries got away with it, despite the subject of photocopying not being on the agenda. However, he received no response at the meeting, and his concerns did not make it into the minutes either.

Any councillors hoping that there will be any official record of concerns they raise on behalf of their constituents at council meetings will hope in vain.


While we are on the subject of minutes, it is pleasing to note that one of the two deputy leaders, Cllr Pam Palmer, has finally got round to holding a formal meeting, six months into her £31,120 per year job.

The meeting was held on 4 October and started at 2.20pm and finished 20 minutes later.

Under review was the Council's use of surveillance under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Pam was content that everything was in order, and she approved a revised policy to be used as the policy for the next 12 months. We are not told what the policy or its revisions are, or why this took as long as 20 minutes.

Pam's main focus, if we are to believe the Council, is Rural Affairs, and if we assume that surveillance is not really much to do with Rural Affairs, we are still waiting for her first official decision on anything to do with the countryside. Unless the council is carrying out secret surveillance on badgers.

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