WHAT a week, readers!
There was the distinct splat of brown and smelly material hitting the fan at Pembrokeshire’s County Hall on Monday.
Of course, nobody breached the tiniest confidence about what happened inside the closed doors meeting and disclosed the sensitive nature of the material under discussion.
Our members are all far too honourable for that sort of scandalous behaviour.
In that, they take their lead from Council officers who never, ever selectively leak to carefully chosen councillors to suit their agendas.
Believe it, readers: writing those last sixty-one words with a straight face almost crippled your friendly neighbourhood Badger.
County Hall’s situation next to a river prone to flooding means it is exceptionally watertight. The building maybe, but councillors leak like sieves.
And that goes double when they’re drip-fed information.
A few occasionally bear the moist impression of the last person who leaked on them and cannot tolerate being saturated with unshared information. You don’t even have to wring it out of them.
At least that’s better than some members’ habit of casting snide aspersions on others.
It would help if those members, and the officers upon which they relied, had not been possessed of such stupefying hubris and incompetence that – on their watch – Pembrokeshire became a byword for government by one party under one unelected and overpaid de facto leader.
Theirs is a record of secrecy, secret meetings, cover-ups, convenient memory loss when called to account, and active attempts to use officers to undermine members who dared stick their heads above the parapet and ask awkward questions.
In case you’d forgotten 2017, the political administration of the Council changed, but many of the officers concerned in the worst examples of incompetence remained in place.
Some of them still cling onto their posts: like pieces of discarded rope wrapped around a boat’s propeller preventing forward motion and eventually burning out the engine.
For over an hour and a half, councillors wrangled and argued about whether or not the EGM should take place in public.
After mouthing pious expressions about the need for transparency, Jamie Adams’s veil slipped in one of his final contributions to the meeting.
His words left no room for alternative interpretation.
Cllr Adams wanted the chance to pot the Council’s leader, David Simpson (or A.N. Other members of the Cabinet).
The rest of his submissions were purely performative to achieving that goal.
Unfortunately, Cllr Simpson was precluded from defending himself on the clear legal advice that the nature of what was under discussion meant he had a personal interest in its outcome.
That alone indicated the dangers of proceeding in an open session where names would be bound to be named, therefore leaving the Council open to further litigation at public expense.
You’d have imagined, readers, that sound advice against naming individuals – or even alluding to their identity – would have engaged members’ critical faculties to warn them against the pursuit of a private agenda.
To a limited extent, Jacob Williams – who was genuinely concerned about holding the debate in public – fell into the same trap.
He volunteered an observation about Mr Westley’s role in negotiating the confidential agreement.
At that point, alarm bells would have started clanging among undecided members – and at least Cllr Williams was prepared to concede that, whatever his instincts, he could see and understand another point of view.
The star of the show was Cllr Stephen Joseph.
Nobody would have picked the Milford Central representative as a potential Rumpole of the Bailey or even an Ally McBeal. Yet his submissions revealed a command of forensic analysis and procedure that Cllr Joseph has hidden under a conspicuously huge bushel since first elected in 2012.
The problematic nature of the debate about whether to go into a private session can best be encapsulated by a single point.
It boils down to spending more of our money.
There are two parties to the settlement agreement. One party (that is, the Council) cannot waive its confidentiality without the other party’s consent (Mr Westley’s).
The Association of Local Government Chief Executives wrote to the Council on that very point. In their view, the settlement agreement and associated payment was a concluded deal that bound both parties to its terms – including confidentiality.
If councillors discussed the settlement agreement and asked questions about its terms, they would breach the absolute obligation to keep confidences.
After an hour of back and forth, Cllr Jonathan Preston forcefully made the relevant point: discussing a confidential paper in public would breach the terms of the agreement with Mr Westley and leave the Council open to spending more money than it already had.
Some councillors (especially the members of the last administration) might be indifferent to wasting large sums of public money.
The record suggests they are.
Badger suggests Council Taxpayers are a bit more resentful about seeing their dough splashed around so others can play silly buggers.
Cllr Preston’s words brought things into sharper focus. The prospect of throwing more money at lawyers when they already had clear advice before them was a fools’ game.
Rather like you can’t be a little bit pregnant, confidential material circulated to councillors would also become public if the discussion took place in public.
Going as far as he felt able in public, the Council’s Silk, Mr Nigel Giffin QC, reminded members that his advice set out legal strategies for the Council.
A rare client decides to disclose that sort of material to third parties, let alone the usual self-taught experts from the University of Life on social media.
An attempt to get the Presiding Officer, Simon Hancock, to rule when and how the Council should go in and out of a private session was unilaterally quashed by Cllr Hancock, who said it would place a burden on him (a non-lawyer), he was not willing to shoulder.
Badger couldn’t blame him.
When you’re playing pass-the-parcel, and it’s ticking, you don’t want to be the poor sap holding it when its contents explode.
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