SENIOR Tory councillor Jeremy Balfour has been caught using a taxpayer-funded iPad to play solitaire in the middle of a committee meeting.
The former Conservative group leader was captured on the council’s in-house webcam engrossed in the game, while fellow members of the public petitions committee debated an important call to ban hazardous cycling on city pavements.
Today, as he came under fire for “whiling away his time” instead of concentrating on the important business of running the city, TaxpayerScotland said his tardy behaviour threw into sharp focus the controversial decision to equip city politicians with expensive tablet computers.
We revealed last May how £50,000 of council taxpayers’ money was splurged on a huge batch of sophisticated iPad 2s and the wifi network needed to run them.
At the time the authority defended the extravagance saying it was a vital step to allow councillors to read committee agendas, reports and other documents electronically rather than having to be issued with printed copies.
But Balfour’s behaviour has sent that argument into a clear tailspin. The damning webcam footage shows him sitting with his head bent over the iPad on the table in front of him, repeatedly tapping the screen for at least seven minutes, as other councillors carry on the debate around him.
Only occasionally raising his head, he even has the audacity at one point to start a fresh game.
Caught on camera
The camera has him in full view as SNP councillor Jim Orr, sitting next to him, launches into a passionate contribution, but he continues to play on.
Last night Cllr Balfour, who quit as Tory leader last year to take the key job as convener of the council’s scrutiny committee, issued a grovelling apology for his behaviour.
“We were going round in circles and I probably just lost concentration. I apologise for doing that. I was listening at the same time, but that’s one of the disadvantages of having the iPads – that you can be distracted. I think we have all been guilty of doing e-mails and other things, but I can only apologise to the petitioner. It won’t happen again.”
Jonathan Isaby, of pressure group TaxpayerScotland, suspects the politician’s apology will do little to appease taxpayers likely to be inflamed by his behaviour. “Edinburgh residents will take a very dim view of Cllr Balfour whiling away a council meeting playing on his iPad,” he said. “Whenever councillors go splashing taxpayers’ cash on the latest gizmo, they usually insist that they are essential to their work representing local people. But in this case it would appear the games on Cllr Balfour’s tablet are far too much of a distraction, suggesting that the gadget is providing poor value for taxpayers’ money.”
Broke no rules
Two years ago, Labour councillor Eric Barry, for Colinton/Fairmilehead, was caught playing Sudoku for three hours during a council debate he was meant to take part in. Labour group leader Andrew Burns branded Cllr Barry’s behaviour unacceptable and today was forced to speak out again.
He insisted Cllr Balfour had not broken any rules, but said representatives should give their full attention to business being discussed. He said: “We are all human and fallible. But it is incumbent on all members of the council to show some respect to the subject being discussed at committee and give it their full attention.”
Hand he’s been dealt
Jeremy Balfour represents Corstorphine/Murrayfield and has been a councillor since 2005.
Educated at Edinburgh Academy, he became a solicitor before doing a theology degree in London. He returned to Edinburgh in 1999, working as a lobbyist for the Evangelical Alliance at the Scottish Parliament and becoming assistant minister at Morningside Baptist Church.
He became Conservative group leader on the council in 2010, but stepped down last year to take up the role of convener of the council’s new cross-party scrutiny committee, which sees him paid £24,352 per year.
Not the only politician misusing iPad
IT may seem a shocking way for a public official to spend an important meeting, but Cllr Balfour is far from alone in being caught out playing games when his attention should have been elsewhere.
Indeed, he is joining some illustrious international company. Former presidential candidate Senator John McCain was the most recent high-profile politician caught out when he was spotted playing video poker on his iPhone during a Senate foreign relations committee hearing on the crisis in Syria. And he seemed unrepentant after pictures emerged, pointing out that the hearing lasted more than three hours.
In 2011, an Indonesian lawmaker named Arifinto was caught browsing porn on his iPad during a hearing – despite being the author of the country’s draconian anti-pornography laws.
And in 2009, two Democrats in the Connecticut House of Representatives, Barbara Lambert and Jack F. Hennessy, were caught playing solitaire on their computers – during a $37 billion budget debate.