September 11th has been an infamous date since 2001; the horror of the terrorist attack on New York City has been indelibly stamped into the world’s consciousness. But this year on September 11th, I was given a whole new reason to remember the date with a heavy heart – it was the day that I gained my first face-to-face experience of local government in action, when I attended the West Dunbartonshire Council (WDC) Education Services Committee meeting.
It would be disrespectful and inappropriate to compare the horror of 9/11 with the pantomime that I was subjected to in West Dunbartonshire Council’s chamber, but I can say that each of these events left me speechless. According to the old adage, there are some things that you don’t want to see being made, such as laws and sausages, and I can now add local government committee decisions to that list. As a voter, I’ve often felt that my part of the deal has been concluded once I’ve checked a box on a ballot paper; thereafter, the good people I’ve helped elect have to deliver on their part of the bargain – and be the best they can be, loyal to their voters and conscientious in their duties. Quid pro quo. Imagine my disappointment then to see, first-hand, just how little I am getting back for my valuable vote. Ironically, given it was an Education Services meeting, I saw behaviour befitting of petulant children, and councillors showing such little respect for voters that almost no effort was made to disguise their boredom and contempt for the due process of committee.
This was an important meeting. On the agenda, was a highly contentious proposal to build a new secondary school in one of the town’s few green spaces – Posties Park. There was strong representation from the local community at the meeting, so much so that the meeting venue was changed at the last minute to the large chamber to accommodate the number of spectators. There was press coverage from local print media and radio.
You’d think, perhaps, that councillors might have had cognizance of this and been on their best behaviour…
Well, I saw no evidence of that. Instead, I saw first-hand the committee Convener, Michelle Stewart, leaning over to her colleague, Terry Lanagan and whispering behind her hand and laughing with him while other committee members spoke. This happened not once or twice, but multiple times, and most often when an opposition councillor was speaking. If I’d been speaking at the time, I’d have had a mind to halt the proceedings and ask Ms. Stewart to share the joke with the class. Ms. Stewart also considered it acceptable behaviour to roll her eyes, sigh and make faces at her Labour colleagues across the chamber to illustrate her contempt for some of the speakers. All this, of course, when she wasn’t interrupting those speakers that she didn’t appear to rate.
Martin Rooney, the council leader, was clearly bored or exhausted by the process, as he reclined so far in his seat that I thought he might be settling in for a nap at one point. And the fact that there were over 20 constituents in the gallery bearing witness to this performance clearly didn’t make a blind bit of difference to him. What a fine example he set to his peers when he lounged in his chair with a plastic cup in his mouth so that it covered his face like a beak for around 10 minutes. With leadership like that, it’s no wonder that his councillor colleagues have cultivated an air of disrespect and arrogance. Perhaps I should be grateful that they weren’t flicking wads of wet paper at each other, or whacking each other with rulers, but I just expected more. Is that unreasonable, especially when you consider these facts…
According to published statistics, Martin Rooney is paid a salary of £30,814.70. He claimed £925.54 in expenses on top of that salary last year.
Michelle Stewart is paid a salary of £24,353.
Terry Lanagan, the Executive Director of Education Services for West Dunbartonshire was paid £101,217 last year.
These people work for us, and they are paid a not insubstantial amount for doing so. We trust them to represent us, and expect their conduct to be exemplary. But it’s not. We expect them to know their facts, and support their constituents. But they don’t.
Despite the fact that over 1500 constituents have demonstrated their objection to the development of Posties Park by signing petitions, these people have staunchly refused to listen to the voices of the very people who put them in a job. All but one councillor, George Black, voted in support of the proposal to consider Posties Park for development. Where’s the quid pro quo now?
I might be disillusioned and disappointed by what I saw on September 11th this year, but in many ways I’m glad that I did see it, as it helps me understand the battle that is coming in the effort to save Posties Park from development.
If you live in West Dunbartonshire, perhaps you should take some time out to go along and really see the people who are paid to represent you. Decide for yourselves if you’re getting value for money. And while you’re at it, please keep asking these people to listen to their electorate, and save Posties Park.