DURING THE election period, the usual weekly picture of Chris Roberts, Greenwich Council's wise and beneficient leader, has temporarily disappeared from Greenwich Time. But at least he has something else to keep him happy.
Today, I can reveal that Mr Roberts has become possibly the highest-paid council leader in Britain, collecting the attractive sum of £1,750 an hour from the public purse for his services.
Mr Roberts is an executive member of London Councils, the umbrella body for the 32 London boroughs. He doesn't like London Councils much - he's pulling Greenwich out of it to save a few quid in affiliation fees. But he is happy to take the £10,499 a year paid to executive members for turning up to its meetings - except, alas, that he doesn't turn up much of the time.
In the four years since the last elections, Mr Roberts has attended only 18 out of 32 meetings. In the most recent financial year, he has attended three out of five, making a total payment for each meeting he's been to of £3,500. The meetings last about two hours, so the hourly rate is something equivalent to a City lawyer's.
Nor is Mr Roberts the only person at the council to enjoy unusual rewards for his services. Tucked away on the council website, I found a fascinating report about council officers' use during 2009 of the authority's sponsored hospitality suite at the O2. Greenwich taxpayers pay £100,000 a year for this private box, with its ringside seat at many of the arena's top events.
"Officers," says the report, "host the suite for most events to ensure that all guests understand how the suite operates... officers have been recruited from across the council to form a pool of volunteer hosts."
According to the report, the shows seen for free by Greenwich Council officers in their private hospitality suite included Metallica, Simply Red, Lionel Ritchie, AC/DC, Russell Brand, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Beyonce, Britney Spears, Kings of Leon, Boyzone, Madonna, James Taylor, and Pearl Jam.
They particularly liked Britney - council officers went to see her ten times. Beyonce, another favourite, scored four and Kings of Leon three. There were also numerous performances of Walking with Dinosaurs and Ben Hur Live.
Tickets for these events, if the taxpayer was not providing, would cost up to £110 each. "Feedback from guests continues to be overwhelmingly positive," the report adds. You don't say!
In theory, the money for the officers is recouped by selling tickets to Greenwich Card holders - but the report shows that for the latest quarter given, June-September 2009, there's a substantial shortfall.
I mention all this because in the upcoming election, the case against Greenwich Council is simple. It's that they are obsessed with flashy irrelevancies at the expense of anything important.
The borough's schools have long been second-rate. Only this week, the council's social services department took an absolute hammering from a High Court judge. Lord Justice Wall, the new head of the Family Division, described Greenwich social workers as "shocking," "arrogant" and "very poor."
But instead of tackling these problems, or anything else that really matters, the council is transfixed by a series of sideshows: the Olympics, Royal Borough status, and endless attempts to fuss and meddle with things, such as the foot tunnels, that are pretty much all right as they are.
The Olympic horseriding will not educate a single child, fund a single social worker or create a single permanent job. It will almost certainly cost jobs, crippling the area's tourist economy for a whole summer, and damaging the park for much longer, if not permanently.
I have genuinely tried to understand what the councillors see in these things, what they imagine is in it for Greenwich. With some reluctance, I've been forced to conclude that it's the junkets. The Royal Borough thing has already been "celebrated" with a slap-up banquet in the Painted Hall. The Olympics have generated lovely air-miles in trips to Beijing. Endless quantities of private luncheons, celebrity hob-nobbing and reserved grandstand seats await the lucky champions of Royal Olympic Greenwich.
When you see the extraordinary way in which the councillors, and some of their staff, treat themselves, it's not so hard to understand why the dull slog of sorting out the schools seems a bit boring by comparison.