Sunday, 13 October 2013

Dear Terry - a mid-term report

Despite the best efforts of the top brass in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire county councils, the scandals surrounding what the Wales Audit Office regards as unlawful payments to senior officers are not going to go away. In Pembrokeshire Old Grumpy has unearthed information which suggests that the committee which approved the pensions tax dodge did not have the authority to do so.

But it was what he had to say about the office of Council Chair which got Cneifiwr thinking. Referring to the election of Vice Chair, he says:

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.

There have been three different council chairs in Carmarthenshire since this blog began, and in this county the three main political parties take it in turns to provide a chair for the year. The current occupant is Terry Davies (Lab).

The role of Chair requires a range of skills. Personality is by a long way the most important. You have to be outgoing and engaging, both as an ambassador outside the council chamber and within it. In the council chamber you have to be a good listener and have a good grasp of the procedures. A sense of humour is vital.

Siân Thomas (Plaid) and Terry Davies (Lab), although very different in their own ways, tick these boxes. The less said about Ivor Jackson's (Independent) year in the job, the better.

But the role is bigger than that. Siân Thomas brought wit and eloquence to the post, and she was scrupulously non-partisan. She would probably also be the first to admit that in key respects she struggled and failed to live up to the job description set out in the council's constitution because the role has been undermined and hollowed out by the controlling, bullying and anti-democratic culture which has developed at the top of the council.

Terry Davies has many qualities, but questioning and challenging authority are not among them, and last week's meeting of the full council showed how far the supposedly most senior office in the council has sunk.

At one point during the meeting Terry expressed the view that the public would not want to see the council turned into a local version of the yah-boo antics of the House of Commons, and about that he is surely right. But the council chamber is very far from being like that, even at its stormiest.

What Terry hasn't twigged is that the council is being brought into disrepute not by rowdy councillors, but by the council leadership's blatant manipulation of the rules and its determination to prevent open and free debate. Issues which are of concern to ordinary people in the county are just not up for discussion.

In her own peculiar way Cllr Jane Tremlett, who is responsible for Adult Social Care and Health, demonstrated the gulf which exists between the council's leadership and ordinary people when she said that a motion critical of the Welsh Government's Health Minister over the downgrading of the hospital in Llanelli "could well damage the good name of our council".

Perhaps it's just the revulsion felt by a well-brought up middle class woman at the frightful prospect of making a scene. But it's a bit worrying that this is the person who is the main link between the council and the NHS.

Dissent is bad. Dissent must be stamped on.

But back to Terry Davies.

The problem is, Terry, that democracy is all about dissent and differing views. Any organisation which stifles debate and discussion and allows only one view is a doomed organisation.

Here are some of the main duties of the Council Chair as described by the Council's much amended and increasingly unbalanced and subverted constitution:

Act as a symbol of the Council’s democratic authority

As the ceremonial head of the Council, to be non-political and uphold the democratic values of the Council

The Chair exercises an ambassadorial role for all citizens of the County and as such it is crucial that the dignity of the office is upheld at all times and the protocols in place are closely followed.

Chair Council meetings

To preside over meetings of the Council, so that its business can be carried out efficiently and with regard to the rights of councillors and the interests of the community.

To ensure that the Council conducts its meetings in line with the Council’s Standing Orders.

To ensure that the council meeting is a forum for the debate of matters of concern to the local community and the place at which councillors are able to hold the executive board and committee chairs to account.

Uphold and promote the Council’s Constitution

To uphold and promote the purposes of the Council’s Constitution at meetings of the Council and, if necessary, to rule on the interpretation of the Constitution

Internal governance, ethical standards and relationships

To promote and support good governance of the Council and its affairs

To promote and support open and transparent government

Let's be honest, Terry. You're not doing a very good job when measured against these criteria, are you?

The way in which last week's meeting ended is by no means the first time things have gone badly off the rails, but it serves as a reminder of what has happened to the office of Council Chair.

When Cllr Darren Price announced his intention of calling for a suspension of standing orders, you immediately abdicated responsibility to the council's acting head of law. What happened next was a brazen misinterpretation of the constitution by the council's officers who conflated rules relating to emergency items with the rules relating to suspending standing orders.

You allowed that to take place when you should have intervened to uphold the constitution.

In the final minutes of the meeting, the Chief Executive seized control from you and addressed councillors directly without going through the chair. He also announced that the meeting was closed.

 The result was that a vote was taken without councillors knowing what they were voting to allow or prevent.

Is that good governance? Does that promote and support open and transparent government?  In what way were you upholding the constitution? What about the rights of councillors and the interests of the community?

Above all, how does your action square with the provision that "the council meeting is a forum for the debate of matters of concern to the local community and the place at which councillors are able to hold the executive board and committee chairs to account?"

As for upholding the dignity of the office at all times, you really need to have a word with the Chief Executive, because he made you look pretty stupid, didn't he?

Terry, let's be honest. You look the part, and there is no question that you represent the council well at all those dire buffets and municipal functions, but you've got to act the part as well.


Anonymous said...

An excellent blog Saturday 13th.I agree with Tessa though "Chilling."
After last week's web-cast however it is quite clear why CCC deserves the title of "Rotten borough."Senior officers and councillors are included in the fiasco taking place and the snowball rolling toward the chief executive will most certainly engulf them.Keep up the pressure and pray for a snowstorm.

Anonymous said...

Spot on

Anonymous said...

Eloquently put Cneifiwr!

Hear, hear Anon 11:18.

Anonymous said...