NOTEBOOK SPECIAL

Even the portraits on the wall would be ashamed of the shambles that is local government in West Dunbartonshire

Jonathan McColl, Provost William Hendrie and the flag of West Dunbartonshire.

Since so few members of the public bother to attend council meetings, I thought it might be a good idea to write a diary piece such as this to let you know what it is like, writes Bill Heaney

And to give you my impressions of the council offices which have been re-housed in the old Burgh Hall in Church Street, Dumbarton.

Before I sat down to type this column, however, someone else had reacted to her own tortuous three hours of witnessing this deeply worrying event, which tried to pass itself off as the monthly meeting of West Dunbartonshire Council.

It was “a shambles” according to Louise Robertson.

She posted her comments on social media against a brightly coloured background of Christmas fairy lights.

Darkness fell as the rain lashed down outside and the River Leven burst its banks and breached the Quay wall, the same wall the Council said would hold back the tide when they they wanted to build a bridge and site a school at Posties.

The water threatened to come up the stairs of the Burgh Hall itself and wash away what was taking place there in our name.

It would have been Noah bad thing had Neptune not waved his trident and held back the turbulent tide that was threatening to swamp the cars of our elected representatives and council officials.

However, these were, of course, parked far from the roaring river in their own officially designated car park, far from the madding crowd who can no longer find a space to set down their vehicles near the High Street.

Louise Robertson got it right in one. The Council meeting was indeed a shambles, but will anyone listen to her?

Or anyone else who is protesting about what this SNP government is trying to pass off as a local authority in the 21st century?

Certainly, it will not be the Scottish Nationalist-Conservative Unionist-Independent  (but only sometimes) administration, who live in an echo chamber and hear no-one but themselves.

After all, Louise Robertson was one of the riff raff in the public gallery who the pretendy wee Provost frequently looked askance at and warned they would be thrown out if as much as a sound of mirth or dismay emanated from their place in the roof. It’s a wonder the public were not locked up in the basement.

It was okay for the Provost to laugh at his own unfunny mistakes when he mixed up councillors with officials and miscalled them Mr and vice versa, but not for the public, the people paying council tax, to behave in a similar fashion.

Robertson Louise

The fact that Louise Robertson, pictured left,  has probably done more for the people of West Dunbartonshire … the women and children of West Dunbartonshire … than anyone else within a mile of the Burgh Hall counts for nothing with these people.

Provost William Hendrie probably didn’t even know her name, just as he didn’t appear to know that it was the elected members who had voted for him to become West Dunbartonshire’s first citizen.  And not the people of Clydebank who had voted him on to the council. Provosts are supposed to know about procedure.

It must have taken a bit of the shine off his Provost’s gold chain though to discover that a bailieship, complete with similar chain, had been awarded to “independent” Cllr Denis Agnew after a piece of political horse trading.

The chain , the position – and an annual imbursement from the public purse of £20,000 –  was in exchange for his vote.

A vote that guarantees a majority for the SNP administration if and, when push comes to shove, with the SNP’s unpopular policies of austerity all round.

These include all those Budget cuts which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrote to say never needed to be made.

Or didn’t write, which means she does not read her “personal” letters before she signs them and endorses misleading statements drawn up by her civil servants.

Libraries could have stayed open; children could have continued to have subsidised music lessons; the grass in public places could have stayed cut and flowers could have been planted. There would be no witch hunt going on either to close our community centres and nursery schools.

Those policies were also supported by the Conservatives, who have taken on the role of elves to the SNP’s unlikely Santa Claus, council leader Cllr Jonathan McColl, who has both the girth and the beard for it.

It didn’t take long for “Santa” to dispense with his jovial demeanour and display his nasty side at this meeting.

West Dunbarton Councellors 2017

Cllr Sally Page, pictured left, one of the few people I have met who truly believes in Universal Credit – and is prepared to articulate her position, although not very well – must have felt she was entitled to expect an encomium from “Santa,” if not a gift-wrapped present from his sack full of goodies.

Instead, when Sally met Santa she got the sharp edge of his tongue.

The ungrateful wretch parked his reindeer and turned on little Sally, spouting through his bushy beard that things had become so bad under the Tories that Prime Minister Theresa May had appointed a Minister for Suicide.

Sputtering Sally looked positively shocked when Santa laid into her with words such as unpardonable, inexcusable and inexplicable – “It is absolutely disgusting that this Tory government is pushing this [Universal Credit] policy through.”

Little wonder then that when it came to the SNP moving to implement their daft ten-year projection for the council’s finances, which included even more cuts and 45 staff redundancies, that the two Tories abstained.

And will hopefully keep abstaining from votes that keep the Nationalists in power here.

McColl has a short memory. If what he wants for Christmas is more support from the Tories, Sally should make him go sing for it.

Cllr Sally Page’s colleague, Cllr Brian Walker, who has been known to dress up grandly in formal clothes and march with the Union flag from time to time, has turned out not to be a knight in shining armour, but a silent knight.

He failed to leap to the Lady of Loch Lomond’s assistance and, in movie theatre parlance, was more Quiet Man than Braveheart.

Walker Brian 9Cllr Walker, pictured right,  never uttered a sentence during the five hours it took to complete this awful meeting.

Every councillor with an ounce of political nous knows that all the SNP’s criticism and blustering about Universal Credit and other Government imposed austerity has no hope of making an impact on Westminster, where their spokesman, appropriately, is an undertaker.

But then Louise Robertson’s remarks about how the administration conduct themselves has little or no impact on West Dunbartonshire Council, where their ignorance and arrogance is almost tangible.

Louise, lest our councillors still don’t know, has been a life-long champion for the rights of women.

She helped to set up a Woman’s Aid hostel for battered women and terrified children in Balloch and marched against nuclear weapons. And she is worth listening to.

Now that being anti-nuclear is politically fashionable enough to have persuaded the SNP that supporting CND might win them some votes, they have jumped on that bandwagon too.

Louise Robertson was well ahead of the game though, long before it became trendy or cool for politicians and officials to support Ban the Bomb marches, campaign against domestic violence and promote women’s rights in their manifestos.

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Burgh Hall new artist's impressionAnd what about the meeting itself and the new Burgh Hall?  I crossed the threshold for the first time for a meeting and was initially impressed by the friendly welcome from the receptionists.

However, I was dismayed to be asked to wait for a burly escort to take me to the “council chamber” which on a good day would pass for the dining hall at Barlinnie.  I was pleased though that one of the two portraits on the “chamber” wall was of a journalist, Samuel Bennett, who had been Provost of Dumbarton and founder editor of the Lennox Herald in the 19th century when politics was respectable and journalists were respected.

Being present at this meeting was not a happy experience, although “happy” is a word seldom used in politics nowadays when “content” is the usual substitute for it.

A visit to the Burgh Hall will convey the reason why this is so from the minute you walk in the door.

People you have known for years will walk past you without as much as a nod in your direction.

I suppose that is to be expected since you are the journalist who has been boycotted and banned by the SNP – and now the Tories too – for simply doing your job, which is to be the eyes and ears of the electorate at public meetings.

They have never heard of Edmund Burke and the Fourth Estate, or at least it does not appear so.

Let’s just pause here to remind them: The term Fourth Estate (or fourth power) refers to the press, and news media, both in explicit capacity of advocacy and implicit ability to frame political issues. Though it is not formally recognized as a part of a political system, it wields significant indirect social influence. The derivation of the term fourth estate arises from the traditional European concept of the three estates of the realm: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. The equivalent term fourth power is somewhat uncommon in English but is used in many European languages referring to the separation of powers in government into a legislature, an executive, and a judiciary. Thomas Carlyle attributed the origin of the term to Edmund Burke, who used it in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons.

In the UK, we are a democracy, which means we take our lead in these matters from Parliament, the Mother of Parliaments. Or that we are supposed to do that.

It allows that when parliament is the shambles, which it is currently because of their mishandling of Brexit, journalists are entitled to report that it is appalling and that our elected representatives and officials are incompetent, which they are.

However, it seems we are not allowed to ask questions or write about such matters in Dumbarton, where we have some elected members worse than appalling and incompetent, without being banned and boycotted by the SNP.

Or without being asked to join organisations to regulate what we write and are not obliged by law or anything else for that matter to join.

General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2018The last person I heard slagging off Theresa May in colourful terms and not holding back an inch was Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, pictured right.

If she can do that to the Tories (and be cheered on by her SNP colleagues), then why should not I be able do similar to the SNP or Labour or even the gold garlanded bailie for that matter.  Without being gagged.

This is not Saudi Arabia or Putin’s Russia.

The SNP have their own propaganda department. I refer to The National newspaper and their digital online platform Wings Over Scotland as examples of this.

They spend almost £400,000 a year of public money in Dumbarton on a Communications Department which refuses to communicate and writes only items acceptable and approved by their political masters.

Has no one ever told them that news is something someone somewhere does not want to see printed and that all the rest is merely advertising?

Did democracy fly out the window when devolution arrived in Scotland, or was it thrown out?

If that is what devolution did, then what must the electorate think about independence – and what would happen then?

In all the circumstances, I believe this is a fair question to ask in a true democracy.  The media deserves to be respected in West Dunbartonshire.

The Council has never challenged the veracity or legality of what has appeared in The Democrat.  They have never asked for an apology or even a correction for anything that has been written here.

It is high time they got the message that the press and public expect open and transparent government in West Dunbartonshire, not fine-sounding words, obfuscation and cover-ups.

The press deserves better than to be allocated broken chairs from which to take notes and lay their papers on a flimsy board no larger than a dinner plate. No wonder it broke.

We expect to be given papers and reports before they come before a meeting and to be able to hear the business of the day and see and hear the participants in the debate.

Not to witness something that resembles a karaoke night in a church hall with a mobile microphone being passed around the “chamber”.

The mumbling amongst the councillors and officials is inaudible and unacceptable no matter where you sit to witness it at what is meant to be an open forum.

Remarkably, some of these officials, on nearly £100,000 a year, need assistance when it comes to switching on a microphone.

People clunk back and forward on wooden floors and the whirring noise from the faulty mechanism on the “chamber” doors drowns out what sound there is.

West Dunbarton Councellors 2017

They tell me a councillor, Diane Docherty, pictured left, was so upset at this meeting that she cried during the discussion on Universal Credit.

I didn’t see that. It is difficult to witness tears when all I could see was the back of the councillor’s head.

Louise Robertson is right. West Dunbartonshire Council is a shambles, a complete and utter shambles.

The refurbishment of the Burgh Hall cost the taxpayers of West Dunbartonshire £15.4 million … and then some in inevitable “extras”, the additional cost of which has typically never been disclosed.

It may even be SNP policy to keep it hidden from prying press and public eyes because my opinion is that we did not receive value for money with this refurbishment.

The people who run our Council are well paid and they can look forward to a gold plated pension when they retire (early) from having to work.

It is only right that the public, through the press, should be made aware of what is going on in local government and that they should receive value for money for the taxes they pay?

It’s time for our elected representatives to take our Council back from officialdom, and for the public to elect councillors who are hard working on our behalf and a credit to our community.

If we have some incompetent councillors at present, then that is the fault of the electorate who voted this mediocrity into power. Or worse, didn’t vote at all.

If our officials fail to meet the standards the public expects from the people whose salaries they pay, then the councillors who appointed them are to blame for the shambles which Louise Robertson and many others believe exists in West Dunbartonshire.

If the men and women who have gone before, people such as the journalist/politician/provost Samuel Bennett, whose portrait hangs on the wall of this makeshift council “chamber” then they would not be “content”.

Indeed, they would be as ashamed as I was and indeed Louise Robertson probably was too at what was being done in their name.

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