Saturday, 12 January 2013

Transparent behaviour and not so transparent funding

I learned something new this week. Well, two things actually.

First, it seems that ahead of the papers for council meetings, distributed a week in advance, 'draft papers' are issued to the Administration, which others don't get to see. I don't have a big problem with this, though I wonder why it's necessary. I only found this out because a formal complaint was made by someone in the Labour Group that I had acquired some of them.

It seems I made reference to this at a recent council meeting. As council meetings are now audio recorded, I have asked for a transcription of the words I used. However, it seems that I referred to the draft budget - by which I meant the original budget drawn up by council officials and which was available to all councillors. I am conscious of course that lurking in the system there may be something officially known as a draft budget which I am not entitled to see - in which case my terminology was wrong; at no point have I received documents to which I'm not entitled.

Paradoxically, the Labour Group continues to spread the lie that I am part of the Coalition (indeed, at a community council meeting this week, the Council Leader answered my question as to why Labour had not discussed their budget with me by saying "Because you're part of the Administration"). If I'm part of the Administration as they claim, why would they be bothered that I get access to their privileged information?

The second thing I learned was that the Labour Group, even almost a year since losing power, still has no intention of trying to bring me on side. This I deduce from the fact they are so ready to lodge spurious complaints. It seems the traditional view of "if you're not with us, you're against us" prevails and the fact that if they are to regain power over the next four years they need me far more than I need them, eludes the comrades still.

This is not something I will lose sleep over. Nor indeed will I fret about the fact I'll probably be in a minority of one or two over my next attack on councillors' privileges, the little known Environmental Improvement Fund.

Each councillor receives an allocation of £15,000 a year (which can be carried forward indefinitely) for spending in his or her own ward on environmental improvements or community projects - park benches and the like. Technically, I could save this up over 5 years and have a £75,000 fund to give away in election year and publicise in my leaflets - funds unavailable to candidates who are not sitting councillors. Democratic? Needless to say, this was introduced when Labour ruled the roost with a huge majority of councillors, but the fact the SNP is lukewarm on removing this is odd, given their stated commitment to more transparency.

I don't want to get rid of the funding - just the ability of individual councillors to decide on how public funds are distributed, something which goes against the principle of transparency. A similar fund, distributed on a ward basis or across Midlothian is fine, just so long as all 18 councillors make the decisions.

As with my proposal for webcasting, it's likely both groups will gleefully exhibit some cross-party co-operation and vote my proposals down (assuming that is, I even manage to get a seconder). That's fine by me - as with the webcasting issue, the feedback I'm getting from people is that they want more transparency in how their council is run.