Tempers raised during full council meeting

Tuesday December 20th 2016

Midlothian Council Webcast

Phil Bowen, Sketch Writer!

The monthly full council meeting took place today which is attended by all eighteen councillors. And boy what a meeting it was. Well a game of two halves to use football parlance.

This was the first full council meeting since the SNP parted company with Independent councillor Peter de Vink and thus had lost their majority in the council – there are 8 SNP councillors, 8 Labour, 1 Green and 1 Independent. Therefore like in the big brother Scottish parliament the SNP now have to horse trade to get things through.

The meeting started fairly normal with the usual agreement of past minutes before moving onto Councillor motions, the first two were passed fine but then the third started to change the meeting.

Councillor de Vink and Green Councillor Ian Baxter had raised a motion criticising the SNP Scottish Government for proposing to redistribute Council Tax raised in Midlothian to struggling schools elsewhere in the country. However, as in the words of Councillor de Vink “following the mother of all U-turns by Scottish Finance Secretary Derek Mackay” last week, who had reversed this proposal, Councillors de Vink and Baxter had changed the wording. Immediately the Provost, Councillor Joe Wallace, who chairs the meeting attempted to stop the motion, However his protestations were silenced by Peter de Vink who explained he had sought officer guidance before changing his motion and so he was entitled to change the wording. First point to Councillor de Vink.

The motion hinged on the reason why Peter de Vink had fallen out with the SNP. He said the leader of the Council, Councillor Catherine Johnstone, had reneged on her promise to write to Derek Mackay to voice council concerns with the proposal to spend council tax money outside Midlothian.

In defending her actions Councillor Johnstone explained that she had not written to Derek Mackay because she had attended a meeting with his and other council leaders instead where she had told him privately that she did not agree with the proposal and as a result of her’s and other council leaders intervention the proposal was revered last week. This caused uproar in the council chamber as this was the first time the non-SNP councillors had heard this.

This provoked a flurry of questions from councillors; Councillor Milligan: “Did the council leader attend the meeting in her official capacity as leader in which case why was the meeting not on the public record?” The answer eventually came, after the Provost tried to stop the question, that yes she had attended the meeting as Council Leader but the meeting was Private and Confidential.

This provoked councillors even more, “How can it be Private and Confidential?”, to paraphrase the Provost “Cos it was and don’t you understand the term Private and Confidential.” At this point the Provost was getting very tetchy and started to drift from his role as impartial chairman.

Councillor Muirhead, Labour “If the the Council Leader did not agree with the proposal why did the SNP group in the council vote against the proposal in the last meeting to write to Derek Mackay saying so?” This question was lost in subsequent interruptions and was left unanswered.

“Was the leader accompanied by any Council Officers?” Councillor Young, Labour. This provided a moment of farce as the question had to be asked twice to solicit the response that she was not accompanied by a council officer. The exasperating Provost shouting out again “Don’t you understand what Private and Confidential means?”

One could tell the Provost was very irked at this point as he then called for the vote on the motion but Labour Councillors were not satisfied as their questions had still not been answered. The Provost gave way again and then finally the vote was taken. Those against the motion 8 (all the SNP councillors), those in favour of the motion 10 (8 Labour, 1 Green and 1 Independent). i.e. motion carried and the Council Leader now has to write to COSLA expressing support for their stance and stating that Midlothian Council do not want this proposed again.

Labour 2 points, Councillor De Vink 1, Provost 0

Then if you thought the meeting had been hot up to this point well that heat was about to be turned up again.

The next motion raised by Labours’ Councillor’s Muirhead and Imrie called for a vote of no confidence in the Council Leader, Catherine Johnstone. The reason stated in the motion, and linked to the discussion in the previous motion, was that she had said she “did not wish Midlothian to be the only SNP controlled Council to criticise the Scottish Government” about the council tax proposal. Words reported by Midlothian View last month – finger on the pulse here!

Councillor Johnstone made statement to the meeting and then left the meeting for the other councillors to discuss her and vote.

Councillor Muirhead went first. He said he knew that people would accuse Labour of carping as they were raising the motion so close to next year’s council elections, however, he said that given the budget constraints the council are under that it is important to have strong leadership that will stand up for Midlothian even if that means going against the SNP Scottish Government.

Councillor Baxter than spoke. He said he realised his role was pivotal, 7 SNP votes against motion, 8 Labour for, 1 Independent for and so given the vote of no confidence required 10 votes in order to pass, it was obvious to him and everyone else that his was the casting vote.

The tension then racked up to X-factor type proportions. What way would Councillor Baxter vote?

For him he said the issue rested on whether Councillor Johnstone had actually promised to Councillor de Vink that she would write to Derek Mackay. Councillor de Vink said she had, Councillor Baxter had seen an email exchange between the two on the subject but Councillor Johnstone had not replied to the email. Councillor Baxter had confronted her directly about this previously and she had said she had not replied to the email as she had been advised not to enter into an email conversation. Strong leadership? We’ll leave that one hanging….

Then Councillor Baxter gave his verdict: it was a yellow card offence, i.e. it was obvious he would not vote against Councillor Johnstone.

So with the vote seemingly lost Councillor Milligan asked why the others at the meeting had not spoken up to say whether Councillor Johnstone had said she would write. The others at the meeting were the Provost, the Deputy Provost, Councillor Rosie and Councillor Bryant.

At this point the Provost said he could not recall the meeting and so did not know what was said. But then! But then he went onto say that Councillor de Vink had been “telling Porkies”. Uh oh, trouble ahead.

Then the Provost called for the Vote to take place. Drum roll.

Oh wait Councillor Muirhead requested a roll-call vote i.e. instead of a show of hands to vote, in a roll-call vote the councillors are required to state their vote each in turn (and I guess this means the indivudla votes are recorded in the council minutes).

“No you can’t do that” said the Provost, irked again. “Yes I can” said Councillor Muirhead”. “No you can’t” repeated the Provost. Then all eyes turned to Mr Turpie, the Council official who knows all about how these meetings should run. “Err yes they can Provost they can ask for a roll call vote”. Provost loses another point.

So each Councillor in turn voted, and as expected the 7 SNP councillors were against, 8 Labour and 1 Independent were for, and drum roll .. Councillor Baxter abstained.

At this point the Provost declared the motion had failed and that Councillor Johnstone should return to the meeting.

“Err hang on Provost” said Labour, “to be clear the motion passed but it just didn’t get the required 10 votes”. “No, it failed” said the Provost. All eyes to Mr Turpie again. “Err yes the motion passed Provost but was just ineffective.” Provost another point down.

Then the Provost referred to Councillor de Vink as “Comrade de Vink.” Oh dear …

Councillor de Vink objected “Please withdraw the remark that I told Porkies”. “No” said the Provost. “I insist” said Councillor de Vink. “No” said the Provost, “We are moving on”. “I object to this and being called Comrade.” Councillor de Vink protested.

At this point SNP councillor Kelly Parry, sensing that her man, The Provost, was on the ropes called what would be described in Basketball terms a “time-out”. “I think the tension in here is very high and I think everyone needs to calm down.” she said.

“Recess for ten minutes” said the Provost and the camera shutdown.

Something or someone must have spoken to the Provost because when the cameras turned back on prior to the restart the Provost and Councillor de Vink were having what looked like a civilised conversation.

The meeting restarted with an apology from the Provost. “In the heat of battle I used the terms “tittle tattle”, “Comrade” and “Porkies” I withdraw this”.

The second half of the meeting the proceeded. Anything important in that? Oh yes the large council budget shortfall. However, this was remarkably calm in stark contrast to the first half. All sides agreed that children should not be asked to walk 6 miles a day to school, that Music Tuition should be continue to be funded in schools, and that Penicuik recycling centre should remain open. All sides appeared to actually have a discussion and all sides agreed that Councillor Baxter’s proposal to develop publicly owned renewable energy, thereby bringing in much needed income, reducing fuel poverty and helping to meet out climate change obligations should be investigated. The budget will be decided at the next meeting, Tuesday 7th February at 2pm.

So that was a long article wasn’t it. The point is that there is world of politics and meetings and decisions that affect everyone of us in Midlothian but that often this world passes everyone by and they do not get to see it. But thanks to technology and that now Council meetings are broadcast via webcast and are available on catch-up then they are much more accessible.

The local council elections take place next year in May 2017. Local politics affect us all and probably much more than national politics does. Local politics deals with schools, roads, policing, parks, leisure centres and lots, lots more.

Here at Midlothian View we strive to take a neutral view. We let all sides have their say. We just want the debate to happen with all the facts in the public domain.

I would encourage everyone to have a look at today’s meeting as it gives valuable insight. HERE.

Midlothian View are proud to be involved in the UseYourVote.com campaign – Encouraging Political Participation at Every Level. Which was launched with the help of Midlothian SNP MP Owen Thompson, see here http://www.midlothianview.com/news/made-in-scotland-midlothian-leads-the-way-in-new-uk-wide-voting-campaign/

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