Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Three Boos for Democracy

An Assembly of the Principals and Electors of the Parish of St. Helier will be held at the Town Hall on Wednesday 29 March 2017 at 7.00pm.

Parishioners are asked to take into consideration and, if deemed advisable: to approve the recommendation of the Constable, Procureurs du Bien Public and the Roads Committee of the Parish of St Helier that the States be asked to negotiate with the Parish to agree a fair price for the lifting of the 'Bellozanne Covenant' P.05/2017

Now anyone seeing that in the JEP or online would be forgiven for thinking that this was a relatively low cost proposition. Unfortunately, as the Minutes reveal, an amendment was brought, which was not advertised prior to the meeting:

Proposer: Mary Osmond
Seconder: Deputy Andrew Lewis

The Constable advised the Assembly that legal advice had been sought and that the consensus was that if a member of the Assembly wished to amend the proposition in a way that they wanted the Parish to take the matter to the Privy Council prior to the States Assembly this was in order, however that was for the Assembly to decide, because as it stood the proposition was as set out in P.05/2017.

He also explained that before giving a short background to the proposition that he had to also inform the Assembly that he had received confirmation from the States Greffier that in order for the States to debate the matter the wording of the proposition would need to be altered to read the following;

‘to request the Minister of the Department of Infrastructure to enter into negotiations with the Parish of St Helier to agree a fair monetary settlement of the dispute concerning the Bellozanne Covenant’

The Assembly was asked if they wished to proceed with the matter based on the new wording and on putting the matter to a vote by a show of hands the amendment was approved unanimously.

Peter Pearce proposed an amendment to the wording of the proposition, which was seconded by Geraint Jennings. The revised wording was;

"to request the Minister of the Department of Infrastructure to enter into negotiations with the Parish of St Helier to agree a fair monetary settlement of the dispute concerning the Bellozanne Covenant, the Parish having first appealed the judgement of the Appeal Court at the Privy Council’ "

The amended proposition was put to the vote by secret ballot and was approved by 56 votes for 4 against and 1 spoilt paper.

It is amazing that this came in and was permitted without advertising the amendment, which could cost the Parish a significant sum, because evidently there was time to seek legal advice on whether such an amendment could be done.

It evidently was not last minute enough for Simon Crowcroft to seek legal advice, and if he had advice, why didn’t he update the way the proposition had been significantly changed, at least using the Parish Website.

John Baker commented that £7million in the collection of commercial waste was a lot of money and against that, £700k did not seem that bad. He would not put money on the States agreeing to pay anything. He would be prepared to back a 50/50 chance at Privy Council.

The minutes record that the Constable shared Mr Baker’s views, so how could he been seen to be quite impartial? Surely the Assembly in which the Constable had a stake should have been chaired by a Procureur, as has happened on occasion in St Brelade, where Constable Steve Pallett decided that he should step away from the chair.

It also raises that point again as to why there was enough time for the Constable to seek legal advice for an amendment, but not enough time to advertise the potential revised amendment.

In the discussion running up to the amendment, Deputy Sam Mezec said there was less risk taking it to Privy Council and that it was right that a public authority stood up for its business community.

It seems to have been a night for Reform to be there, because Deputy Monfort Tadier, who is a St Brelade Deputy, decided to speak out and said that the Minsters only understand hardball. He would take it to Privy Council and pressure would be put on the Minister from other Ministers. So it may not get there but he didn’t think it was a bad deal at around £100k.

Is this a growing trend, and can we expect Reform Deputies to turn up at Parish Assemblies elsewhere?

Where the figure of £100k comes from, I can’t see from the minutes, but the total figure, or at least a figure mentioned by John Baker was £700k.

On this, Ben Shenton remarked that:

“Constable Simon Crowcroft has led the fight on behalf of his parishioners but made it quite clear where accountability for the £750,000 lies – not with him but with the St Helier Parish Assembly. ‘I will take this fight further. But I need the Assembly’s backing because two years down the line, if we are faced with a £750,000 legal bill, I don’t want people saying it is the Constable’s fault,’ he said.”

“So that’s clear, then. Accountability lies with the 56 parishioners who turned up and voted to continue the fight and it has nothing to do with the parish Constable when it goes wrong.”

But it is partly the Constable’s fault! He could have at the very least lodged an amendment or found someone willing to lodge an amendment to advertise the revised proposition before it was debated so that there might have conceivably been more than 56 people voting on the matter. That could also have involved finding someone capable of doing proper costing. Reading those minutes, the calculations given out, even by the Constable, seem rushed, last minute, like figures scribbled on the back of a beer mat.

He could have alerted the media and placed the amendment on the Parish website just after he had his legal advice. Instead, like a modern day Pontius Pilate, he washed his hands of the matter, ostensibly leaving it in the hands of his Parishioners.

All he did do was to legally protect himself from blame. Whether his Parishioners think that is enough, or he should be held morally accountable, remains to be seen. History, it may be noted, was not too kind to Pontius Pilate, who also took the view that the people should make decisions.

What we also don’t know is how many of those present have a business in St Helier, and hence a vested interest in getting the matter past. Remember that the largest businesses on the High Street are pretty well all owned by UK shareholders who contribute nothing in the way of taxes towards waste disposal, whereas the individual Parishioner pays for his sewage and other waste disposal through general taxation.

As Ben Shenton notes:

“According to the MTFP, the preferred route is through a ‘non-domestic Island wide rate’. This makes sense and, given the state of current finances, a contribution from UK high street businesses which do not pay income tax is a sensible one. Indeed, this could be a useful revenue stream to reduce the tax burden on individuals.”

In the meantime, a costly amendment has been pushed through without advertising it, and at 56 votes, voted on by less people than voted for most of the failed candidates for Deputy in St Helier! Here are the two lowest:

Risoli, Gino – 192
Ttokkallos, John – 104
Voting at Parish Assembly on spend of at least £100,00K -  56

Parish Assemblies were fine when the number of Parishioners was so small that most of them could turn up to vote - as can happen in St Mary - but as things stand now, if even a quarter of the St Helier electorate turned up, there would be no room for them in the Assembly Hall.

If the Parish Assembly is to remain viable in this century, and I sincerely hope it does, then electronic means of participation is the way forward, with eVoting on propositions. Then at least, we would have a real democratic vote, rather than the tokenism of 56.

John Stuart Mill wrote:

"the only government which can fully satisfy all the exigencies of the social state is one in which the whole people participate; that any participation, even in the smallest public function, is useful; that the participation should every where be as great as the general degree of improvement of the community will allow"

We have many improvements needed to increase participation, and it is about time decisions on Parish matters allowed pre-polled voting and eVoting.

And amendments to propositions in the States Chamber have to be made before a debate, so that there is enough time to review them. Shouldn't the Parish Assembly adopt this very sensible position to avoid expensive amendments being made and approved "on the hoof"?

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