Labour and Conservative councillors last night voted in unison to defeat a move to force the Vale of Glamorgan Council to publish the individual voting record of every member of the council.
Last night’s vote means that local residents will not be able to monitor the performance and the voting-patterns of incumbent councillors – or have access to that information before they go to the polls next May – even though the councillors are, in fact, paid employees of council-tax-payers.
A motion to publish the voting records and the attendance records of councillors had been tabled by Cllr Kevin Mahoney (Independent Sully) and Cllr Christopher Williams (Independent Dinas Powys) .
Cllr Mahoney said the words “transparency” and “openness” were almost as overused as the council’s favourite word “sustainability” . He asked what could be more ‘transparent’ and ‘open’ than making every councillor’s voting-record – and their stance on various issues – available to the public who they represent?
Cllr Mahoney is seen by other members of the Vale Council as outsider, something of a renegade and a paid-up member of the “awkward-squad” who tends to rub everyone up the wrong way and therefore has trouble forging alliances with representatives of the other parties. But last night proved to be an exception.
At first, Cllr Ian Johnson (Plaid Buttrills Ward Barry) appeared to be opposing Cllr Mahoney’s motion – pointing out that there was no electronic voting apparatus in the Vale Council Chamber and therefore motions were passed “by acclamation“. Most motions, he said, were “non-controversial” and members could ask for votes to be manually “recorded” [by taking a time-consuming roll-call of councillors] on controversial issues.
Cllr Johnson also listed motions over the years on which Cllr Mahoney had opposed Plaid Cymru. A “mischief-making councillor” – he said – could abuse the voting process by asking for a recorded vote on everything.
…..However at this point Cllr Johnson changed gear – and said he agreed with Cllr Mahoney that the present system wasn’t good enough . The Vale Council should be more open and more transparent – just as the National Assembly was. Voting by acclamation was “outmoded” . The council should invest in electronic voting apparatus as soon as possible – as suggested by the council’s own democratic services committee.
Cllr Johnson suggested an amendment to Cllr Mahoney’s motion:- “Voting on each item will be carried out electronically and the names for, against and abstaining will be entered into the minutes. The chairman will announce the result immediately each result is known” . The council’s Monitoring Officer told members that there was already provision for the same arrangements – if adopted – to also apply to committees.
Somewhat ungraciously, a surprised Cllr Mahoney accepted the amendment – saying he was delighted that Plaid Cymru – having opposed his proposal last time – had “come around to his way of thinking” .
However, soon the major parties began a move to quash the motion. Cllr John Thomas (Conservative St Athan) said he would not support the motion. He said “I am quite happy to stick with the current arrangements” – arrangements which the democratic services committee had discussed the only recently. The council didn’t know what the cost would be of installing an electronic voting system. “My group” [ the Conservatives ] will be voting against” he said. [ In fact Cllr Thomas was to be proved wrong]
On a point of order, Cllr Chris Franks (Plaid Dinas Powys) said he hesitated to correct Cllr Thomas, but in fact the council’s democratic services committee had already recommended in principle that electronic voting should be adopted
Cllr Thomas responded by saying the democratic services committee – which a moment earlier he’d used to support his stance – had no executive powers .
Labour councillors then leapt on the cost issue to keep electronic voting – and council transparency – at bay. Cllr John Drysdale (Labour Illtyd) asked “Can this council pass a motion which commits it to take actions for which it does not have the equipment or the ability”
This opened the door for the Labour leader of the council Cllr Neil Moore use the “equipment issue” to argue against the motion “ If we agreed this – it would be electronic voting for every meeting that we have . We don’t have the equipment” . The existing member microphone system he said, was “obsolete” and therefore the whole system would “probably cost a fortune”. “We have reports coming to council on a regular basis showing how much money we don’t have” he said.
However Cllr Moore appeared to be confused as to whether he was talking about councillors’ voting records or councillor’s absence records (which were to be the subject of a later motion) .
He said that “If anybody wants to know the way people vote all they have to do was to look in the minutes because they’ll see who should be present. They can see who is present. They can see who has given apologies and can actually see who don’t give apologies – which is more important” [ PDN Note: In fact no such item is included in the council minutes] “and they can actually…ummm” – he said hesitantly – “see what happens in relation to the decisions”. [ PDN Note: -The minutes do not record who voted for, against or abstained unless there is a (rare) recorded vote]. By now Cllr Moore appeared to have realised what he was saying and corrected himself . He said “Admittedly you don’t know every one of them – ummm – but it’s called..but it’s called .. a democracy . We work on a majority vote or by affirmation …So I will be resisting”
Cllr Peter King (Labour Cornerswell) said that “We are tonight more accountable than we’ve ever been because of being recorded” [PDN Note: it was the first time the CCTV system, which was installed four years ago at considerable public expense, has ever been used to stream live tv coverage of a full Vale Council meeting on the internet. The delays were entirely due to foot-dragging by the current Labour administration – which still opposes televising the Vale ‘cabinet’ meetings where all the major decisions are made ] .
Cllr King said that if anyone was interested in how people voted they could “look it up” , However it was pointed to Cllr King that the TV coverage does not show all the members who are voting – and therefore viewers cannot use tv coverage to see how each individual councillor is voting. Cllr King said he would like to see electronic voting someday but was “not keen on spending the money just yet”.
Cllr Jonathan Bird (Conservative Wenvoe) asked for a report to be prepared on the estimated cost of electronic voting .
The Mayor Cllr Stuart Egan in the chair said such a report would be prepared for the Vale ‘cabinet’. He said “This is being recorded tonight . This council is moving forward in opening up its procedures but we shouldn’t make decisions without knowing the cost first” and went on to invite Cllr Mahoney to respond on his motion.
Cllr Mahoney said “We just wasted over £250,000 stripping out a perfectly good council chamber to replace it with the joke that this is. Surely” – he said to the Labour group – “you should have done that then [ i.e. introduce electronic voting at that time] rather than whining about money now”
Calling him to order, the Mayor asked Cllr Mahoney to reply to his motion. Cllr Mahoney said “I’m delighted that, at least in some quarters, my plea for transparency and openness is being met and understood at long last “.
One of the Vale Council’s rare recorded votes was then taken:-
The Penarth MPs voting AGAINST the motion were Cllr Janice Birch (Labour Stanwell), Cllr Rhiannon Birch (Labour Cornerswell), Cllr Lis Burnett ( Labour St Augustines), Cllr Maureen Kelly Owen (Conservative Plymouth Ward) , Cllr Peter King (Labour Cornerswell) , Cllr Gwyn Roberts (Labour St Augustine’s)
The only Penarth councillor voting FOR the motion was Cllr Clive Williams (Conservative Plymouth Ward -) who defied his own Conservative group whip and supported the amended motion in favour of greater transparency.
In the full council vote there were 10 votes FOR and 33 votes AGAINST – meaning that the Vale Council does NOT have to publicly reveal how its councillors vote in council meetings or committees, other than when a full formal recorded vote has been called for by a minimum of 6 members (the required minimum) .