Sunday 9 March 2014

Everyone a winner except for the pit canary

Friday's meeting of the full council saw leader Kevin Madge perform a U-turn on his plans to push through dramatic increases in charges for sports facilities. Charges for the current year will still rise, but the council will carry out a review of fees for years two and three of the scheme.

Up before the council on Friday was a motion submitted by Cllr Emlyn Dole (Plaid) calling for a freeze of the new charges, and after most of the Labour councillors left the chamber it was adopted unanimously with the sole exception of Cllr Meryl Gravell, who according to the South Wales Guardian's reporter declined to vote or abstain.

In Kevin Madge's words the policy was all about fairness and creating a level playing field, and what was going through Cllr Gravell's mind as the council's determination to implement it crumbled away, we shall probably never know, but her views on protesters ("rabble") and councillors who listen to public opinion ("weak") are the stuff of legend.

The Plaid Cymru group on the council had been warning about the devastating consequences for many local sports clubs ever since it stumbled across the proposals back in October. When the matter was first raised, Kevin Madge described opposition councillors as "ostriches in the sand" and had refused to allow the decision to be debated.

But that was then, and this is now. In the wake of the Wales Audit Office's damning public interest reports which highlighted grave shortcomings in the way the council is run and the "chickens came home to roost" as Kev might say, he now believes that we are entering a new era. Things will be done differently, and there will be a fresh start, he has declared several times in the council chamber, flanked by his dream team of Meryl Gravell, Pam Palmer, Tegwen Devichand et al.

Even Kev's staunchest supporters would find it difficult to describe this set-up as fresh. The likelihood that the old dogs on the Executive Board will learn new tricks and embrace consultation, transparency and democracy is slim indeed.

Despite all that, Kevin Madge somehow saw the U-turn as a victory for his fresh start.

The truth was that without the stand taken by Plaid and a high profile campaign run by Carmarthenshire United Sports Committee (CUSC), the ruling Labour-Independent coalition would have stuck to its guns.

That did not prevent the Llanelli Star, which briefly rediscovered the virtues of listening to public opinion, from claiming that it was the Star wot won it because it had taken the unusual step of printing some readers' views.

So there we are. In a sense everyone involved (except possibly Meryl Gravell) was a winner.

This new-found commitment to giving readers a say only goes so far. While the South Wales Guardian found space for several readers' letters expressing their disgust about recent events in County Hall, the Star's sister paper in Carmarthen printed just one rather mildly worded letter from a reader who was less than impressed with Kevin Madge (criticism of the council itself remains an absolute taboo on the Journal).

The council's webcast of the extraordinary meeting couple two weeks ago attracted nearly 2,500 viewers, and public interest in local government has rarely been as intense. The letters pages of local newspapers, normally a useful barometer for gauging public opinion, have been largely silent in much of the county.

Friday's meeting thus brought to an end an extraordinary month of long council meetings in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire in which the public got to see their elected representatives at work.

In Pembrokeshire the council leader, Jamie Adams (Ind) was also keen to talk about fresh starts. The council was now a very different beast to what it had been before he became leader, he said several times. To show just how different things are now, he ensured his troops voted not to suspend chief executive Bryn Parry Jones. They also voted not to suspend the monitoring officer, Laurence Harding. Mr Harding it was who demonstrated his professionalism and non-partisan approach to his duties by handing an envelope containing the name of dissident councillors to Mr Timothy Kerr QC as he was chauffered to Haverfordwest.

For anyone from Carmarthenshire watching Thursday's webcast from Haverfordwest, there would have been much that was familiar from County Hall in Carmarthen, but also some surprises.

Pembrokeshire County Council is dominated by councillors who describe themselves as "Independents". There is also a separate breed of independent independents and a scattering of small party groups (Plaid, Labour and Conservative).

The three members of the Conservative group managed to vote three different ways on the motion to suspend the chief executive. The Labour group in Haverfordwest was forthright in its condemnation of policies and practices which its brothers and sisters in Carmarthen have spent the last six months defending to the hilt.

There is also a very strange breed of Pembrokeshire councillor who manage to have a foot in more than one camp. The appalling Cllr Susan Perkins manages to be a leading light in the ruling Independent administration while still being a member of the Labour Party in whose name she was elected.

As Old Grumpy reports, Cllr Perkins' recollection of her past actions seems to be at odds with the official record on several scores. She claimed last week to have previously voted to get rid of Mr Parry Jones when the record shows that she voted against an opposition motion of no confidence.

One noticeable difference between the two councils is that in Pembrokeshire the official Independents actually speak and contribute to debate, even if the quality and accuracy of their contributions leave a lot to be desired.

In Carmarthenshire most of the grizzled Independent contingent never have a word to say for themselves, with the exception of Meryl Gravell, Giles Morgan and occasionally Pam Palmer.

The Carmarthenshire Independents appear to have a policy of normally allowing only one backbencher to speak. Before the 2012 election that role was assumed by Stephen James (more recently star of "The Call Centre"), who would deliver his Daily Mail view of the world at every meeting. Now the official mascot is Giles Morgan. Giles likes to wear a white linen jacket, and was memorably described recently as "Martin Bell minus ethics".

At the recent Extraordinary Meeting to discuss the WAO reports, Giles tore into Jacqui Thompson for criticising the chief executive. What she had done was outrageous and disgusting, he declared. As an employer he would have no qualms about supporting a member of staff if they found themselves in the libel courts.

Let's hope for Giles's sake that this is never put to the test. Somehow it feels unlikely that the councillor would be prepared to dig into his own pockets to fund a libel action brought by one of his employees.

Also making a rare contribution to discussion at the recent extraordinary meeting in Carmarthen was veteran Independent councillor Tom Theophilus. Now in his ninth decade, Tom recounted his travails defending his honour before the Public Services Ombudsman. Luckily for Tom nobody reminded him how he had claimed somewhat fancifully at the last election to be standing in Cilycwm with the backing of Plaid Cymru.

Lucky also for Cllr Gravell that nobody challenged an assertion she has now made on a couple of occasions that the council decided to introduce its notorious libel indemnity clause to the constitution in 2009 when it noticed a sudden surge of cases of defamation against council officers.

Whereas Jamie Adams in Pembrokeshire tried to put some distance between himself and the council's officers by saying that he did not always see eye to eye with Bryn Parry Jones, Meryl Gravell left no doubt where she stood in Carmarthenshire. "It is always morally correct to defend your officers", she declared angrily at one point.

To end with the sort of ornithological phraseology so favoured by council leader Kevin Madge as he embarks on his fresh start, with friends like these his hopes are, as they say, "gobaith caneri" (a reference to the life expectancy of canaries once used to detect toxic gases in mines).


Anonymous said...

What CCC did to a disabled employee was a lot more than "outrageous and disgusting!" Therefore, given the judgement, we take it that Cllr Morgan has "no qualms" in supporting this person now, during and after the remedy hearing?

Anonymous said...

"Martin Bell minus ethics" .... love it!

caebrwyn said...

One thing which wasn't mentioned at the Extraordinary meeting was that Mr James lost two of the actions within the counterclaim and permission to appeal a third has been granted by the Court of Appeal.