Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Moseley Spinners

I'm on the record as having 'issues' with the Standards Board for England - my thinking is that no quango has the right to remove an elected councillor. That is the sole duty of the electorate - there are other avenues for redress for a councillor's indiscretions through the criminal and civil law. So, when Martin Mullaney, Liberal Democrat councillor for Moseley and Kings Heath ends up before the beak - well, the first ever meeting of the Birmingham Standards Committee, at least - my feeling is to back the guy, regardless of the error of his political ways. I do at least try to be consistent.

In a really brief summary, Martin made a video which was then posted on YouTube to highlight what he saw as the damage being done to a listed building in his ward by a developer. During the course of making the video, he wandered off a private access route to another building - where he had permission to be - and onto the private property of the developer. Certain comments were made which were removed from later versions of the video - needless to say, they weren't positive comments about the developer in question. There are two conflicting lines on this - one that the developer is trying to do his best with an old building that has suffered from years of neglect and the other that he has some ulterior motive for wanting it to fall down.

The Standards Committee found Martin and his partner in crime, Cllr Ernie Hendricks (friends tell me he's actually a decent guy, despite HIS political leanings), very guilty of disrespect and sentenced them to be taken from that place and suspended for a month unless they apologised to the developer and removed the video from YouTube.

So far, so straightforward. Storm in a teacup soon to blow over.

What then gets interesting is that Ernie decides that he'll stand up for his principles - that he believes that he has done nothing wrong and he'll take the suspension for it, an entirely consistent point of view. Martin decides to apologise. That strikes me as odd, but both Martin and John explained it on 'The Stirrer', that Cllr Mullaney would apologise so that the Ward Committee could continue to function, as the quorum is two of the three councillors.

How valid an argument is this?

We'll leave aside the consideration that an apology not genuinely meant is devoid of any meaning and look at that claim. Any suspension wouldn't take effect until two weeks after the Standards Committee formally publish their recommendations - so that takes us up into early April, all told and into the election run up. I would suggest that a full suspension would be served by mid-May - around the 12th or so.

The fact is that the Moseley Ward Committee met on the 19th March, with all three councillors available. There would be no need for the committee to meet again until mid-May - the Acocks Green Ward Committee met the previous week and won't be assembling until late in May, so even if both councillors were suspended, it would not impact on the committee's functions.

But, I hear you cry - what happens if decisions need to be made between times? Well, you have a point, although decision making during the election period is dodgy.
John Hemming retorted that
Decisions between committee meetings require the written consent of two councillors at least.

Far be it from me to criticise an MP and a local councillor, but he's talking cobblers.

Every Ward Committe has this as the last item on the agenda:

14 AUTHORITY TO CHAIRPERSON AND OFFICERS Chairperson to move :– ''That the Chairperson (or in his/her absence, the Vice-Chairperson if appropriate) is hereby authorised to act until the next meeting of the Committee except that, in respect of the exercise of the Council’s executive functions delegated to it by the Cabinet, the appropriate Chief Officers are hereby authorised to act in consultation with the Chairperson and that the Chief Legal Officer is authorised to affix the Corporate Seal to any document necessary to give effect to a decision of the said officers acting in pursuance of the power hereby delegated to them; further that a report of all action taken under this authority be submitted to the next meeting and that such report shall explain why this authority was used.'

What that jargon says is that the chair of the committee - John's squeeze Emily Cox - can make decisions in the meantime. It makes no mention of consultation or written agreements - although good practice would suggest that the chair consult their colleagues prior to making the decision, that decision is down to the chair alone.

The fact is that Martin didn't want to face the embarassment of going into an election campaign - he's up this May - as a suspended councillor.

The latest rumour is that he will take his punishment like a man - something that I would have a whole lot more respect for than his current stance, where he is trying to spin his way out of trouble.

The debate on The Stirrer has become even more entertaining, as it has descended into a discussion of the finer points of the law around trespass - even though that wasn't why the punishment was imposed - as part of an attempt to gloss over the whole affair and shift the focus.

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