Penarth residents are to remain unable to find out how individual members of the Labour-controlled Penarth Town Council have voted on various issues.
In most cases it will continue to be impossible for anyone to discover – for example – which councillor voted against a home extension plan, or which member of the council supported the destruction of a local landmark.
A new, revised version of the council’s Standing Orders – the document which governs the conduct of the council’s deliberations – has just been published , but makes few changes in the less-than-transparent way in which the secretive council’s affairs are conducted.
The council claims that the new Standing Orders are designed to “Create a powerful and effective means of holding decision-makers to account ” – but independent observers say that, in fact, the reverse is the case .
INDIVIDUAL COUNCILLOR’S VOTES NOT RECORDED:
Members of Penarth Town Council and its committees vote on a “show of hands” – but unless an individual councillor asks for the vote to be “recorded” – (and usually no councillor does) – no record is made or kept on how each individual councillor cast their vote. (Section 19.1)
MINUTES OF MEETINGS CAN BE DESTROYED AFTER THREE YEARS:
The new version of Standing Orders also continues the ability of Penarth Town Council to bury its mistakes by destroying its agendas and the minutes of its meetings after a period of only three years. There is no obligation on the council to retain its minutes for a longer period and there is no on-line searcheable index of council decisions. (Section 3 1. d)
RIGHT OF PUBLIC TO SPEAK AT MEETINGS:
The standing orders say members of the public can speak at any meeting of the full council or its “spending committees”. However the council is now changing the timing of these meetings from 19:00 in the evening to 18:00 – to make it less inconvenient for the council’s salaried staff officers. The change however, may make it more difficult for working members of the public to attend. (Section 4.4)
COUNCIL REPORTS UNAVAILABLE TO THE PUBLIC :
Much of the Council’s business involves discussing “Officer Reports” – papers written to set out the background of various issues and provide options for councillors to consider. Other councils openly publish their reports – in advance of meetings – on their websites. Penarth Town Council does not.
If members of the public wish to see Penarth Town Council reports they first of all have to know that such reports exist – and then they have to visit the Council Offices at West House to read them. The new Standing Orders document still does not do not include any obligation for the council to publish these documents on its website.
A number of meetings Penarth Town Council are not classed as full-council meetings or council committee meetings – and are held secretly under the guise of being “working groups”, “sub-committees”, or “panels” – such as the council’s grandiosely-entitled “Strategic Review Group” . There is no publicly-available list of all these groups or their membership.
The new version of the Standing Orders says “All proceedings of Committees, Sub-Committees, Working Groups or Panels not open to the public shall be treated as confidential. No Member or Officer shall reveal any information which resulted in, or contributed towards decision to exclude the public and the press during the consideration of the matter and any comment on the decision reached shall be couched in terms that do not breach the requirement of confidentiality”
“Under no circumstances is confidential information that forms part of the committee or proceedings shall be imparted to third parties ” [sic] (Section 36)
USE OF WEST HOUSE BY THE LABOUR PARTY:
One item not referred to in the Code of Conduct, or the revised Standing Orders, is the propriety (or otherwise) of allowing Penarth Town Council’s HQ at West House to be used for constituency surgeries by Stephen Doughty (Labour MP for Cardiff South and Penarth) – apparently free of charge.
West House is also used as a venue by Labour councillors – but only Labour councillors – to meet residents of their wards. It is not used for such purposes by the Conservative Party.
West House has been twice bought and paid for by the people of Penarth – in both cases by increasing the Town Council precept . It is owned outright by the Council on behalf of all the people of Penarth.
Some local campaigners have already pointed out that although the council has a desperate need to increase its revenue from venue hire, it is providing facilities for the Labour Party free of charge – and therefore, in effect, subsidising a political party from public funds.
The Penarth Town Mayor is to continue to be elected every year by councillors (in effect by the controlling political group) on the “Buggins’ Turn” principle. There are no proposals to have the mayor elected by the general public as is provided for under the Local Government Act 2000 . There is also no machinery to allow the electorate to remove a Town Mayor from office.