The Gift That Keeps on Giving
Somerset County Council meetings are always interesting. This is not often in a good way. The meeting on the 15th May was no exception. The first meeting in the council year is usually uncontroversial. The election of a chair, vice chair, updating documents such as the Constitution….
I mean how dull can this be? But you would not be reckoning on the infinite capacity of all our county councillors, of all parties and none, to take a simple issue and turn it into a degenerate farce. On this occasion we descended, as we frequently do, through Dante’s Circles of Hell. We reached easily into Wrath and Heresy if we did not actually get to Violence, on occasion it could have gone either way. At times it looked as if we might make it as far as Treachery.
And what could be the cause of such appalling disharmony?
To set the scene you need to know that SCC has a Constitution Committee, it is multi party, one representative from each group on the council and also has five members of the public, independent experts and tax payers with a view to keeping things honest. And these honourable men and women had the temerity to suggest that SCC should change the way they record full council meetings.
At present, an audio recording is made of proceedings. It is placed on the SCC website and kept there until the minutes of the meeting are prepared, then it is deleted. The Constitution Committee recommended that instead the recordings should be kept online for two years.
Who could possibly object to that? The answer was Gemma Vernon, Councillor for Chard South. Ms Vernon strikes me as a capable lady perfectly able to form and articulate her own views. But for some reason it required the Leader of the Council, David Fothergill to tell the Chair that she had a proposal. It maybe that the #metoo movement has yet to penetrate the hallowed halls of SCC, it maybe a point of constitutional procedure. If the latter then forgive me for taking a lesson from what follows and not wanting to delve any further into SCCs Constitutional nightmares.
Back to Cllr Vernon. She objected to the idea of making a decision based on a cross party agreement and the input of 5 members of the public. Presumably she had no confidence in the Constitutional Committee despite the fact it is chaired by fellow Conservative William Wallace.
For what she wanted was another committee, no actually a “Task and Finish” Group (is this a Committee?) to look at all the issues. If you were wondering what issues she supplied a long litany including looking at costs, benefits, risks of storage, data protection, privacy considerations for members of the public.
These are not unreasonable in themselves. What seemed to have passed Cllr Vernon by, is that all the same considerations apply to the current audio recordings that are already made for every County Council meeting and then put up on the SCC website and only destroyed when meeting minutes are approved.
Tessa Munt (Wells) made this self same point adding that as the county solicitor was present at the Constitutional Committee meeting surely any issues will have been brought up at the time. She also noted in passing that as any member of public can film and record meetings those recordings would potentially be in the public domain regardless of SCC’s policies or procedures.
Councillor Huxtable (King Alfred) is obsessed with cost. We should delivery best value for our taxpayers.
Quite so. But he was quite unable to note a single cost that would be incurred by keeping recordings available to the public for 2 years rather than 6 months.
Martin Dimery (Frome East) wondered why SCC could not aspire to do better than other councils. And could not help himself in stating the bleeding obvious that this amendment seeks to move transparency not just into the long grass but out of sight altogether.
By now things were getting very excitable. We had four points of order before your humble correspondent lost count. We had more than 10 “clarifications” before he lost the will to live.
Then with 7 people still waiting to speak Leader David Fothergill moved to go straight to a vote. Pay attention children, this gets complicated now.
The Monitoring Officer agreed the rules dictated that we had to go straight to a vote as long as the suggestion was seconded. It was. At least he did until Cllr Redman pointed out that the rules actually meant the Recommendation from the Constitution Committee had to be put first. The Monitoring Officer thougt about it, conferred with his legal counsel and decided to change his mind as to which motion came first. I really don’t know if it was a chicken or an egg but it may well have been both.
Mike Rigby now intervened with the first and only definitive observation on proceedings “Thank God these proceedings are not recorded for posterity because this is a shambles”
Cllr Redman (Bridgwater) at one point threatened to leave the room as he had been denied the chance to speak, the Chairman pleaded with him to stay. By now the Chair and Monitoring Officer between them seemed to have lost, if not control of proceedings, any kind of consistency in the way matters were to be dealt with.
We return at this juncture to the patriarchy. David Fothergill noting that things were getting out of hand “wondered if Gemma would like to withdraw her amendment.” “Gemma” meekly dutifully withdrew her proposal. Women’s Lib clearly hasn’t reached these circles yet, #metoo has no chance. But the dog whistle had been blown and it was now perfectly clear that things would dissolve along party lines.
Cllr Dance (South Petherton) stood to demand a named vote. The Chair said “no”. More than ten opposition members stood in support. The Chair still said “no”. Then having explained to them why it was wrong in principle according to the Constitution, for some reason he change the “no” to a “yes”. It is still not clear why.
It really was a shambles. Just for the record and a propos of nothing, Dante has a Circle of Hell labelled Limbo.
Needless to say the named vote revealed a complete lack of intellectual integrity with every councillor (the Chair excepted) I could see voting along party lines. At least until we got to William Wallace. Now Cllr Wallace was in an interesting position. He chaired the Committee that brought the original suggestion. It was to all intents and purposes his recommendation as much as the other councillors on the Committee, yet all his party had voted against.
A pity. It would have been good to see some evidence of guts or moral integrity in the Chamber, but from where I was sitting these qualities had long since fled the room.
For the record and in case (as I had) by now you’ve lost the plot, the vote was on whether to allow recordings of council meetings to be kept online on the SCC website for 2 years for the public to access them.
The results were:
19 in favour (all opposition members)
29 against (all Conservatives)
2 abstentions (Cllr Wallace and the Chair)
Some good will come of this. Compromises will be reached, and sooner or later there will be proper accountability because actually, when they leave the performance space, that is what most councillors want.
Personally I don’t know why they don’t just ask the BBC to do it for them. then SCC would abrogate themselves of all responsibility which is perhaps what they want. And the BBC has every right to do it and keep the tapes for ever.
And in the meantime I will only observe that the abysmal conduct of SCC County Council meetings can surely not dink much lower?