The main event at this month's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council was an attempt by senior officers and the Executive Board to take responsibility for deciding on school closures away from elected councillors.
Reading haltingly and with a complete lack of conviction from a script, Keith Davies (Lab), the Executive Board member responsible for schools and children's services, explained why he thought (or rather whoever had written his script) that this was a wonderful thing. It would speed up decision making and put responsibility into the hands of people who had extensive experience of reorganising (i.e. closing) schools.
The ensuing debate was saw some passionate contributions from the Plaid councillors, with Eirwyn Williams and Glynog Davies making particularly strong speeches.The proposals were undemocratic, several said. Glynog Davies argued that it was essential that responsibility rested with elected councillors in full council because they knew their communities. Eirwyn Williams reminded councillors that the Modernising Education Programme had cut a swathe across the north of the county with devastating consequences for the villages there and the children.
Sian Caiach deplored this attempt to streamline decision making at the expense of democracy. The proposals for closing small schools were nothing short of dictatorship, she added.
Linda Evans pointed out that all but one of the 10 members of the Executive Board came from the south of the county, and Peter Hughes Griffiths made a very telling point when he asked Keith Davies to outline what his "extensive experience" was.
We will never find out because Anthony Jones (Lab) was on his feet deploring what he felt was a personal attack.
If all of this sounds one-sided and partisan, it would be refreshing to report what Independent and Labour councillors said.
Not a single Independent councillor had anything to say. Their only contribution came when Pam Palmer said "seconded" after Kevin Madge proposed the motion to accept Keith Davies's report.
The surprise came when Anthony Jones proposed an amendment to Kevin Madge's proposal. Instead of seizing the opportunity to kill it off, however, he came up with a very unconvincing argument that councillors needed more information, and so the matter should be sent back off on a circuit of the council, first to the scrutiny committee and then on to the Executive Board before returning for a second debate in full council. Calum Higgins seconded this crab-like manoeuvre.
A split had opened up in Labour's ranks.
Kevin Madge then delivered a kamikaze speech which revealed why councillors were right to oppose the plan. The essence of it was that people who opposed school closures just delayed matters, what with all those long-winded consultations and appeals. He unwittingly demonstrated that once councillor officers had decided that a school should be closed, the Executive Board would have no hesitation in rubber stamping the decision, regardless of the views of local people.
Viewers of the broadcast could not see what happened next, but there must have been some hurried conversations on the Labour benches, with someone pointing out to Kevin Madge that he was about to be defeated. His motion was suddenly withdrawn.
Two recorded votes then took place. The first was on an amendment proposed by Darren Price (Plaid) that full council should have responsibility for deciding school closures and reorganisations. That was narrowly defeated (31 to 30 with one abstention).
Although each councillor had to call out whether they were voting for, against or abstaining, it was impossible from the webcast to hear how some of the Independent members cast their votes. What seems to have happened is that the Labour group closed ranks and voted against the Plaid amendment, while a couple of Independents voted in favour.
In the second vote Anthony Jones's motion to send the matter back to the scrutiny committee was carried.
What that means is that the issue will not resurface for months. In the meantime we can be sure that a great deal of arm twisting, cajoling and barely disguised bribery using special responsibility allowances will take place to try and ensure that the council officers get the answer they want.
A little later there was more bizarre procedural hocus pocus when a report from the Democratic Services Committee came up. Council officers had wanted to reduce the frequency of council and committee meetings, but the committee said no. This should have gone to a vote, but the acting Head of Law insisted that there was no need for a vote, and that the matter would instead be referred to a seminar.
Shortly afterwards procedure was used yet again to wave through minutes of another committee meeting at which councillors had expressed frustration that a report on e-mail snooping had still not been provided by officers.
And that was really the main story behind this month's council meeting:
if elected councillors go against officers' wishes, the officers
will either ignore them or find ways of circumventing their decisions.