Farce as Blogger is Arrested at County Council Meeting
Well, the blogger was not me, in case you were thinking I had been a naughty boy at County Hall!
The story started when I found a link on Twitter to the arrest of Jacqui Thompson, who was arrested by Dyfed-Powys Police for filming a meeting from the public gallery at Carmarthenshire County Council, about 3 weeks ago, using her mobile phone.
As a former Town and District Councillor in West Wiltshire, local government still remains a passion for me. At the District Council, I was lucky to be part of the ruling Lib Dem group that opened up the former Tory Council after it had been heavily criticised for its actions, by the District Auditor and the Local Government Ombudsman.
This was at the time of the "loony left" Councils being exposed in the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. As West Wiltshire was Tory run at the time of Maggie Thatcher being PM, these same newspapers were not interested in what a Tory Council had been doing, so it was left to the Independent and the Wiltshire Times to report the antics and I remember Christian Wolmar, reporting on the events for the Independent.
The 1991 elections saw the Tories reduced to 9 seats and a minority Lib Dem administration took over to sort out the mess and to restore the good name. One of the main policies was to open the Council and we did that by allowing public questions at Council and Committee meetings, allowing supporters and objectors to speak at site meetings on Planning applications, amongst others. Yes, it meant that we could be open to criticism, but if you are not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to be worried about.
After initial interest, the public interest waned, but it was there as a mechanism if they needed it.
That was 20 years ago and I am surprised that such openness is not exactly available here in Pembrokeshire. As a former councillor, I am happy to admit councillors do not know everything and whilst we were exposed to a lot of facts we already knew, or were repetitive, or not even relevent, we were occasionally given information that did help change a decision. To say a councillor knows best, is just pure arrogance and I still firmly believe that a good Council takes every opportunity to listen to its residents and to encourage active participation. OK, at the end, the councillors still have to make the decision.
However, this leads me onto the farce that recently took place at County Hall in Carmarthen, in which Jacqui Thompson was ultimately arrested for filming a Council Meeting, using her mobile phone.
Jacqui is not known to me personally. I do not know her personal political views. I glean that she is a shy individual who has her own blog in which she exposes what she perceives as problems within Carmarthenshire County Council. She is also a Community Councillor in Llanwrda.
When the Council Chairman saw Jacqui was filming the meeting using her mobile phone, he asked her to stop, but she continued. The meeting was suspended and the Police were called and Jacqui was arrested and taken to Llanelli, yet if you know Carmarthen, the Police Station is just a few hundred yards from County Hall.
The facts show that:- - The Council's Constitution does not ban filming of Council meetings, nor does the law of the land.
- Jacqui was not being disruptive in the sense that an ordinary person would define causing a disturbance that would stop a meeting taking place.
- Jacqui was eventually released without charge, with no apology from the Council, or the Police.
Jacqui has been stopped from filming meetings before, but as she says "the reason I filmed that meeting , the reason for the blog, is that I believe that we need transparency and openness in our local authorities".
We never had cameras in our Council meetings 20 years ago, but we always had the press and BBC Radio Wiltshire recorded all our meetings and had a studio WITHIN the Council building. Time has gone on in 20 years. The innocent actions by Jacqui Thompson has blown up in the faces of the Council and the Police, both of whom do not appear to have heard of the saying "WHEN IN A HOLE, STOP DIGGING". Instead, they continue to dig...
However, Jacqui's actions has created the debate across Wales and made Councils look at their own Constitutions and I contacted the Vice-Chair of Ceredigion County Council, who I know, as he is an active Blogger and a Lib Dem. I asked him to investigate and to do a blog article on it, as it raised so many questions on openness and public involvement in the decision making of our Councils. No doubt many Councils will be looking at the issues of filming and I understand that Carmarthenshire are looking at filming Council meetings to put them on the Internet.
I cannot envisage watching a Council Meeting myself on the Internet, but no doubt others will. I certainly cannot see why TV cameras cannot go into the Chamber if there were contentious issues to report, that is of interest to the wider public. If I was chairing a Council Meeting today, I would have no objection to it being filmed if it was also open to the public. It seems ludicrous that a meeting open to the public in Carmarthenshire in 2011 could not be filmed, yet Parliament has been on our screens since 1986.
Why does Carmarthenshire County Council have a problem with today's technology? And openness....
14 AM's have now backed moves to allow the public to film Council meetings. The statemement of opinion was proposed by Conservative AM, William Graham. As at 1/7/11, not one Labour AM had signed the statement.
It is somewhat ironic that whilst people are dying on the streets of the Middle East as they rise up to remove authoritarian Governments, that there are still pockets within the UK, where some would prefer us not to see the process of democracy. What do they have to hide in Carmarthenshire?
Why doesn't the County Council and the Dyfed-Powys Police simply issue an apology to Jacqui Thompson?
So overall, we all owe Jacqui a lot, for exposing how Carmarthenshire County Council would like to operate. Her brave stand is to be commended and no doubt the current County Councillor for her ward in Llanwrda may be contemplating spending more time with his (or her) family after the May 2012 County Council Elections. I would imagine Jacqui will easily win the seat.
To bring us back to Pembrokeshire, it will be interesting to see how Pembrokeshire County Council reacts to the issue of filming Council meetings and whether it is actually banned. Don't worry, I am not going to test it.
It is ironic that in England, the Prime Minister a while back was saying Councils needed to allow filming etc..., it is a devolved matter to the Welsh Assembly and the WAG has not exactly been in a hurry to keep up with events.
Jacqui's story has hit the Welsh and National papers, along with the New Statesmen and Private Eye, so the issue is certainly gathering plenty of momentum. Hopefully, change will come a lot sooner for Wales' Councils, something that not even Jacqui had envisaged, when she held up her mobile phone camera in the Council Chamber, 3 weeks ago. If the Council is annoyed at all the publicity, well, they can thank their Council Chairman, who thought their meeting was being disrupted.
Jacqui may be a shy individual, but her heart is obviously in the right place and we need more people in local government, like her. A modern day Rebecca?
TWITTER - Why not follow me @AndrewLye and @caebrwyn - Jacqui Thompson. I would recommend you to follow Jacqui Thompson.
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