What do Councillors know…?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a discussion on Facebook with a fellow Dumbartonian about the proposal to build a new school on Posties Park. In summary, he and I were not in agreement on this matter.  However, he’s a citizen and voter and has every bit as much right as me to voice his opinion, so we didn’t fall out.  However, he wrote something in a message to me that I’ve thought about quite frequently since, and I will share it with you here.  He wrote :

JPN FB snip

At the time, when I first read this message, I made an off-the-cuff response to the writer, commenting on his blind faith and optimism, and reminding him of some of the recent examples of Councillors who haven’t quite lived up to their code of conduct. I reminded him of the Rev. Paul Flowers, former Labour Councillor and Co-op executive, who was candidly recorded buying crystal meth recently.  Equally, I could have mentioned SNP Councillor, Jamie Rae, who fiddled £15k worth of housing benefits, or Tory Councillor, Brian Coleman, who assaulted a voter in the street for taking a picture of him parking illegally. Or another zillion public figures in positions of trust and authority who fell from grace.  You get the picture…

The point of this post is not to attack or criticise the Facebook commentator, and nor is it to attack or demean our elected representatives.  I simply want to make one point, and it is this :

Local government Councillors are men and women from all walks of life and all backgrounds.  They are human and they are fallible.  They have pasts and life experiences, and, like every one of us, their opinions and decisions are socially constructed. They are, generally, lay people and not experts in the intricate business of local government departments.  Above all, they are not Gods.

The Facebook commentator asked why a Councillor would POSSIBLY make a decision which is not viable, safe or achievable. Well, there are potentially hundreds of reasons why this could happen, and a cursory view of the the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman statistics shows that it does indeed happen, every year.

I am not suggesting that Councillors willfully make bad decisions – I’m sure that, for the most part, Councillors take their role as public servants seriously and try hard to do good. But even stripping out any question of deviancy or malice in Councillors’ actions, there still remain potential issues of judgment, experience and preparedness that can impact on the decisions that Councillors make.

Last year, the Standards Commission for Scotland conducted a survey of Councillors to ascertain how confident and capable they feel in their understanding of the Code of Conduct, which provides a basic ethical framework for their practice. One of the key questions asked was whether or not Councillors felt any sections of the Code were complex or difficult to understand, and where they might need some further guidance. This following diagram provides an illustration of their responses :

What councillors don't know

Unsurprisingly, the ever-complex and often contentious issue of planning was identified by Councillors as their biggest development need, followed by ‘declaration of interests’ in second place.

Both of these sections of the Code are critical elements in the proposal to build a secondary school on Posties Park. It has come to light that at least one member of the Educational Services Committee, who will make the initial decision on the Posties proposal, may well have a non-pecuniary interest in the siting of the new school.  And if the proposal is voted through by the Education Services Committee, then the full Council will be required to make a planning decision on the matter.

There is no question that a Councillor’s job can be complex, particularly when it is governed by such a strict Code and conducted in the glare of public scrutiny. Think for a minute about the decisions that you make in your job and in your life, and consider the impact that these decisions have on you and on your work and family networks. Now imagine that you are making decisions on behalf of many thousands of people, and you can begin to understand the pressure that Councillors may be feeling on the eve of this important vote.  When the Education Services Committee vote tomorrow on whether or not to build a new OLSP on our valued public park, it is safe to assume that many of the members will be feeling at least some uncertainty around which decision to make, particularly given the sheer scale of the public opposition to this proposal.

To these members who are unsure or uncertain, I would say this : don’t vote for something that just doesn’t feel right. It is not too late to press the pause button, and take more time to re-evaluate other options which are financially more attractive, do not permanently destroy valuable green space, and yet still deliver an excellent new school.  Your constituents will respect and appreciate a level of circumspection in this decision, and no-one will think less of you for calling a halt to a proposal which has become hugely unpopular and a source of rancour and discontent in the electorate.  It may seem as though the challenge of going back to the drawing board is too great, but compare this to the impact of rushing through an unpopular and unwanted proposal and the effect that this will have on the morale of the citizenship.

We know it’s difficult.  We appreciate that the pressure is great, and the scrutiny is burdensome, but it’s now your burden to carry.  Please make the right choice. Save Posties Park.

– MAx

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