How it happened, I have no idea, but last night, by the time we were all assembled for the meeting of the Finchley and Golders Green Residents' Forum, a small miracle had taken place within the ranks of the Tory group in Barnet. Small, but highly significant.
Councillor Graham Old, the one Tory councillor who dared to face the audience at the Forum, was last night moved to admit that his colleague Councillor Kate Salinger, the only Tory to abstain from voting for the shameful pay rise, was, and I quote: 'a great heroine'.
Yes. A great heroine.
Now that there has been so much distaste expressed by the residents of our borough for not only the rise itself but the way in which Mrs Salinger was punished and humiliated by her own party as a consequence of her brave stand, there is evidently a sense of shame amongst at least some of her colleagues about what took place. Of course you may be cynical and say that this is only because of the fall out - the unprecedented feeling of disgust from the electorate, the government, and pretty well anyone you care to ask: and, additionally, it seems, from news earlier today, that there are now formal moves to question the 'legality' of the vote, driven by the efforts of the GMB union.
Another funny thing that happened concerned some of the other local Tory councillors, who, for some reason, completely forgot to turn up to face their residents at the Finchley and Golders Green Residents' Forum! Can you believe it? No Councillor Dean Cohen, who is actually the Chairman of the committee, or any of the Golders Green councillors such as his dad, you know, the Cabinet member with the new allowance, Councillor Melvin Cohen. No Councillor Reuben Thompstone. From Finchley Church End, no CouncillorEva Greenspan, or Councillor Daniel Thomas, who spoke so enthusiastically at the full council meeting. What a shame. Perhaps there was something good on telly last night.
Rest assured that your own special correspondant, Mrs Angry, did make it to the meeting, and made careful notes of the two hour long discussion, much of which, unsurprisingly, became uncomfortably fixated on the sensitive subject of our councillors' recent self awarded pay hike.
There were about thirty or so residents who had got wind of this meeting, and made the point of attending, and a number of councillors from other parties joined them in the audience: Finchley Labour Councillors Alison Moore, Jim Tierney, Geoff Cooke and Alan Schneiderman, and Libdem councillor Jack Cohen, from Childs Hill. The mood of residents was restrained, but angry and determined: both sides sized each other up as we waited for the meeting to begin. The officers and the solitary councillor on the committee looked nervous: residents wondered if they would they try to supress discussion as had been the case at the forum last week? Not much chance of that last night, as it turned out.
The only Tory councillor who showed his face at this forum was Church End councillor Graham Old, and he chaired the meeting. Councillor Dean Cohen sent his apologies, with no explanation as to his absence; nor was there any explanation as to why no other Tory councillor from Golders Green had dared to attend.
One of the things which greatly puzzles Mrs Angry about the make up of the present council is the peculiar network of families which dominates the membership. There are several Tory married couples who are councillors: Mr and Mrs Cornelius; Mr and Mrs Tambourides; Mr and Mrs Salinger; There is also a father and son combination: Melvin and Dean Cohen, and of course two thirds of our Libdem councillors are married to each other (work that one out yourself).
Now call me old fashioned, but I rather think that some things are best not practised within the family. Incest. DIY. Trying to explain the offside rule. Working as your husband's parliamentary secretary, or your dad's researcher - and, arguably, acting as joint councillors for the same local government ward.
In the interests of 'transparency' and accountability, I feel that such cosy pairings, however honest and hard working, are in general, an anachronism in modern government, even on a local scale. Keeping it within the family might be a nice arrangement for the councillors: double allowances etc, but it is surely not the healthiest option for the electorate, nor an arrangement which necessarily represents the best value for money.
Last night, however, there was only one lonely councillor left to take the flak at our meeting, and it appeared, from what transpired, that he had been set up as the patsy by his absent colleagues. New boy Graham Old has only been in office since May, and was therefore able to plead ignorance to any uncomfortable questions which predated his election, which was rather convenient, of course.
Sitting with Councillor Old was Jeff Lustig, Director of Corporate Governance, and some officers from Democratic Services, planning, and transport. Mr Lustig sat at the councillor's right hand, and they waited, with wary expressions, for the meeting to commence.
After a couple of brief items about CPZs in North Finchley, and traffic congestion in Golders Green, the real fun began.
A question had been submitted asking why the notorious Item 5.3, which had proposed the councillors pay hike, had been allowed on the agenda at the very last minute on the basis of 'urgency'. We were referred in a written response to the Mayor's explanation for his approval of this at the council meeting, which alludes to 'problems with IT within the council' which had 'contributed to delay in distributing/publication of the paper', but did not really properly address the issue of the alleged urgency. The Mayor had merely said: 'I am satisfied that Council need to consider the London Council Independent Renumeration Panel Report as soon as possible after its publication in May, particularly given that the next Council meeting is not until 14th September 2010.'
He was evidently worried that some of his colleagues would have to wait eight more weeks without their pay rise: just imagine, off on their well deserved holidays with no extra pocket money! Poor darlings.
A woman in the audience asked what exactly were the problems with the IT, and why it seemed only to affect the papers concerning the allowance rise? Mr Lustig said something about 'networks' problems' but could not comment further. Councillor Old looked uncomfortable. The woman then asked if, as these alleged IT problems had meant the item had been included at the last minute without any warning, whether it would not have been better for the item to have been delayed to the next meeting so that full consultation could take place? Ah. Councillor Old looked even more uncomfortable.
'I take your point', he said.
He was clearly unable, or unwilling, to provide any further elaboration, explanation, or defence.
'You take my point?' asked the woman, in amazement.
'You take my point.' she muttered, shaking her head in despair.
There was then a discussion of whether or not legal advice had been taken as to the way in which this item would be voted upon. No clear answer was given to residents about this: in fact there was a marked reluctance to respond: possibly the reason may lie in the challenge now apparently being posed by the GMB, or perhaps the answer was simply not known, which would be rather odd, wouldn't it?
Councillor Old was asked directly by another woman why he had voted in the way he had. He had a list of answers ready. The previous system had been discredited. The whole 'thrust' of councillors' work had changed. The new system demands that councillors are subject to a new system of appraisal. Yes. Bla bla bla. Heard it all before, thank you.
And of course the audience was less than satisfied with these reasons. Councillor Salinger's appalling treatment was mentioned, and Councillor Old then let slip his quite unexpected tribute to her heroism. I suspect that this belated outing of support for Mrs Salinger may well be viewed as a grave error by some of his more senior colleagues. It may however have saved him from a full verbal lynching by the residents.
He was asked if the old system of allowance rates had really been discredited since only March, when the previous rate system had been used to approve the annual allowances. He pleaded ignorance: pointed out that he was a new boy, and hadn't been around then. Oh. Shame.
A woman who is a well informed and articulate member of the Residents Association of Barnet pointed out that there had been nothing in the Tories local election manifesto about a new allowance scheme, that they ought to have a conscience and duty to reflect the wishes of the people, and their best interests. There was applause for her, as indeed for much of what she said throughout the evening.
Another gentleman involved in the anti Brent Cross development coalition asked what was the criteria for urgent items at council meetings. He was told that this was already set out in the written answer. Very well hidden if it is: damned if I can see it. And of course one might reasonably conclude from recent events that the real criteria is if the timing is beneficial to the administration.
Questions were asked about the procedural chain of events which brought Item 5.3 to the agenda, and it was suggested that the meeting at which the proposals were formed was anyway too close to the council meeting for any IT problems to have been the reason for the lateness of the inclusion on the agenda. Interesting. Councillor Old ruefully remarked that in the good old days, the whole issue would have been put before a committee of councillors before going to the vote anyway.
And therein lies the problem, in my view: this administration is concentrating power and decision making within the control of a small cabal of individuals within the cabinet rather than consulting with their group, let alone taking the issues forward to be debated by the council as a whole.
Labour councillor Jim Tierney then spoke. He noted the status of heroine now awarded to Mrs Salinger for her daring act in abstaining from the vote, and concluded that Mr Old must therefore have a truly profound admiration for the Labour and Libdem councillors who had actually voted against the move.
He reminded Councillor Old that 24 hours before the Tory group pushed through their pay hike, council staff had attended briefings about their own pay freezes and the uncertain future they all face. He wondered how the staff felt to hear the next day that councillors had awarded themselves this rise in their own pay? Yet again Mr Lord looked ill at ease, as indeed any decent person would, and rather surprisingly, and to his credit, made the point of expressing his personal respect for the Labour and Libdem councillors.
A resident in the ensuing discussion reminded Councillor Old that we live in a democracy.
'We used to', yelled another member of the audience.
A woman told Councillor Old that in her opinion, in the matter of the allowance proposal, he should have used the power of his vote rather than join in with the crowd. He listened to her but said that he did not apologise for what he did.
Libdem councillor Jack Cohen spoke. He pointed out that there were no Cabinet members present. They of course will be the largest beneficiaries from the new allowance scheme, whereas he stood to suffer a 60% reduction of his own allowance.
Labour group leader Alison Moore, who also loses out, said that the issue was about honesty, and fairness, and timing. The pay hike was so ill judged.
A woman asked Councillor Old why he had not taken the heroic route forged by Councillor Salinger. He said he had earlier tried to negotiate a compromise and reduced rate. He also pointed out that he felt it was unfair that he should come in for so much criticism when at least he was present to answer residents' comments. She pointed out in reply that that was because none of his colleagues had had the decency to turn up, and that the only reasonable conclusion in the absence of any other excuse, was that it was due to cowardice.
Another resident then asked if the absent councillors would still receive the allowances they claim for attending this meeting. Unbelievably, it was confirmed that they would indeed receive this money.
I think for me, this was the most objectionable remark that I heard all evening.
These people are our elected representatives: we placed them in office to serve our best interests. They lecture us about the need for painful sacrifices and then award themselves huge and unjustifiable pay increases. And then they do not have the integrity to turn up to the meetings they are paid to attend in order to explain themselves and account for their actions to their own constituents.
They want us to believe that they are working so hard for constituents, that they deserve salaries from us, not allowances. Can you imagine, if a council worker in any department, or any employee in the private sector decided not to bother attending an important meeting, that they would be allowed to stay away with no good reason, and not face disciplinary proceedings? That they would be paid to sit at home and fail to carry out their duties? Why should it be any different for councillors?
A resident then felt moved to propose that a certain councillor whose attitude he felt to be less than helpful be paid to stay away from the Residents' Forum. I pointed out that tonight he already had been.
And last evening's demonstration, fellow citizens, is an example of how the democratic process works, or rather does not work, in our borough: empowering the council administration and its leadership rather than the community it has been elected to serve.
Forget about the Big Society, with local autonomy and increased accountability to residents, here in Broken Barnet we live in a virtual dictatorship, and unless we are very careful to assert our rights to more accountable representation, we will continue to do so.