Monday 16 June 2014

June Council Meeting - A Shop Window

This month's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council was a fairly muted affair, but a couple of points are worthy of a mention.

There were apologies from 15 councillors (out of 74), with the roll call of absentees including Labour's Keri Thomas once again. That now makes 11 consecutive meetings of the full council missed, and we will soon be able to celebrate the first anniversary of his last appearance in the chamber to stand up for the people of Tyisha. 

The Chief Executive had been keeping an unusually low profile since returning from gardening leave, but there were several signs this month that things are returning to normal.

Most of the short-ish agenda was made up of reports from various committees and scrutiny committees which it was the councillors' task to "receive", with the main item of business being a review of the council's governance arrangements.

Kevin Madge and Chris Burns, one of the assistant chief executives, were very keen to assure councillors that the panel which had been appointed was both politically balanced and independent. It has been put together by the Welsh Local Government Association, and will include a former council chief executive and someone who used to work for the Wales Audit Office, councillors were told.

For some odd reason the names of the great and good who will make up the panel have not been made public, and so we have no way of knowing yet just how balanced and independent the panel will actually be.

Chris Burns was also very keen to stress that all councillors would have an opportunity to make their views known to the panel, but there was no mention of whether the public would be allowed to venture an opinion.

The panel will begin work before the end of June, and so as soon as we know who the mystery panellists are, Cneifiwr will endeavour to publish contact details so that anyone who feels strongly about how the council is run will be able to send in their unsolicited thoughts.

That over with, councillors turned their attention to "receiving" reports. This produced a lively and interesting discussion on a range of matters including the relocation of Mid and West Wales Fire's control centre from Llangunnor to Bridgend and a decision by Dyfed Powys Police to cut its Bobby Van service, which advises people on home security.

A number of (Plaid) councillors raised questions about the role and purpose of the Local Service Board, a group of bosses from the council, health service board, police, fire service, etc., plus Kevin Madge, which meets to all intents and purposes in secret several times a year to discuss high level strategy - but not Bobby Vans, control centres or anything that you could put a finger on. Meetings are not open to the public, and there is no public record of their deliberations, even though all of those participating represent public bodies.

This was precisely the sort of airing of concerns and exchange of views on current issues which most residents would hope and expect councillors to engage in at their monthly meetings, and thanks to the filming of meetings of the full council, we can now all see them doing it for ourselves. In short, the monthly meeting  is the council's shop window on the world.

As it happens the council's constitution puts this very neatly when it describes the role of the Chair of Council:

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.

 Of course, this is not how the Chief Executive sees things, and he made it clear that his masterplan to do away with all this unnecessary debate and washing of dirty linen in public has not gone away.

If he had his way, the monthly meetings would not be given an opportunity to review the work of the various committees and raise "matters of concern", but would sit obediently and listen to corporate Powerpoint presentations instead.

So although the rest of us don't know much about the panel that will decide on the future of local democracy in Carmarthenshire, Mr James's body language and eye movements suggested that his crystal ball is working just fine. He commented,

"I believe I was shot down in the press for that [plans to curb democratic debate, Ed], but we'll see what the independent panel makes of it".

As experienced James watchers know, the chief executive rarely if ever ventures an opinion on some future event unless he is pretty sure of the outcome.

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