Monday, 23 May 2016

Pembrey Country Park: 'Senior officers covered up scandal' - The Carmarthenshire Herald

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald has more on the unfolding scandals surrounding the management of council run Pembrey Country Park. Although rumours of dishonesty, and financial and procedural irregularities have been rumbling for a couple of years, a recent internal council audit turned up some very serious allegations, for background see my earlier post here.

Attempts to raise the report at full council in April were slapped down by council leader Dole and despite demands from opposition councillors for police involvement, or at least an independent investigation, matters are currently being dealt with in-house....

Carmarthenshire Herald May 20th 2016

The Herald article includes transcripts of recorded conversations between various (anonymised) council officers and third parties which suggests that tenders have been discussed and awarded outside the proper process and that the restructuring of facilities was deliberately designed to remove, or "get rid" of employees who intended to blow the whistle.

In another recording council officers attempt to find out what information is held by a third party, pleading with that third party not to go to the police..."For f**k sake, don't go to the police".
It is understood that information has now been passed to the police.

With the park catering contract tender currently on hold after the process was challenged by an unsuccessful bidder, its all adding fuel to the fire.

I have also heard various serious allegations from anonymous sources over the past year or two, all of which backs up the information in the Herald, and brings into serious doubt the recent claims made by senior officers to councillors that there was 'no evidence of fraud'.

Something stinks and presumably none of this has gone unnoticed by the Wales Audit Office who, with no love lost between themselves and the council, should be keeping a very close eye on developments.
The question here is who knew what, and when, and exactly how far up the corporate food chain did that knowledge extend. As we have seen, 'irregularities' are a recurring theme throughout County Hall but unfortunately, accountability is far less prevalent.

The Herald article is not yet online, I will add a link when it appears, meanwhile it's well worth 50p. Also, the letters page includes a supportive and considered contribution from Mr Tim Hart titled 'The Caebrwyn Blogger' and relates to ongoing matters detailed here.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Unlawful payments - Mark James challenges the Auditor - updated

Update 20th May:

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald reports that the Wales Audit Office have told Mr James, via Cllr Dole, where to put his complaint, in so many words.

It seems, from the Wales Audit Office response to Cllr Dole that he had, in addition to querying Anthony Barrett's appointment, asked the WAO to return the fees incurred for the two Public Interest Reports.
The WAO responded and confirmed that, as a member of the Welsh Government approved Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA);

"Anthony Barrett's qualifications as an Appointed Auditor at that time, do not call into question the validity of any of the actions he took in relation to any local government body. All reports and certificates issued by Anthony Barrett are valid"

The Auditor General for Wales also wrote to Cllr Dole and the Herald reports that the letter remarks that Mr James raised no objection to Mr Barrett's appointment at the time, nor did he raise any query when Mr Barrett was tasked with investigating the whole murky business behind the unlawful payments. He also confirms Mr Barrett's eligibility to act under the Audit Commission Act 2001.

In his final paragraph the Auditor General echoes the WAO letter and further confirms that all reports and certificates issued by Mr Barrett are valid.

So that, it appears, is that. Good. It remains to be seen how much more money the council are prepared to throw at massaging Mr James' fractured ego.

*  *  *  *  *

BBC Wales reports that Carmarthenshire council chief executive Mark James, via his mouthpiece Plaid Cymru leader Emlyn Dole, is, unsurprisingly, joining the suspended senior officers of Caerphilly Council in questioning whether the appointed auditor, Anthony Barrett, was qualified to rule that the unlawful payments were indeed, unlawful.

The criminal case against the Caerphilly officers, following similar findings by the Wales Audit Office, and which included the chief executive Anthony O'Sullivan, was dropped last year although this seems to have had more to do with the the Crown Prosecution Service dragging their feet than anything else.

Step forward Emlyn Dole, once, when in opposition, the opponent of all things unlawful, and now the chief protector of Mr James.

Cllr Dole speaking at the Extraordinary meeting in Feb 2014 and voting to ACCEPT, in full, the findings of the Appointed Auditor that the libel indemnity was unlawful...

This is not surprising, only a couple of months back Cllr Dole was denying that the unlawful payments ever existed, although blatant hypocrisy in politics is commonplace. Mr James, of course, will do anything it takes to try and discredit anyone who finds him at fault; he attacked the Auditor, via the press office, when the Wales Audit Office reports came out in 2014 (and indeed the Plaid MP who reported him to the police).

This latest move by Mr James to get himself off the hook shows he is prepared to spend even more of your cash to attack those who challenge him.

I have covered the Caerphilly case on this blog as there are clear and obvious parallels, most recently here. In my view the three officers should have stood trial for Misconduct in Public Office, and/or fraud, and should have been joined in the dock by Mr James and his partner in the pension scam, Pembrokeshire's Bryn Parry Jones. Mr James had the additional 'problem' of his illegal libel indemnity of course.

The WAO reports can be found here and here, and Anthony Barrett's bio here. He seems entirely qualified to me. The WAO should respond to these challenges urgently - if the one occasion where they actually showed themselves to have teeth is not defended robustly then they might as well pack their desks and shut up shop. 

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Exempt reports flourishing in County Hall

One of the recognised drawbacks of webcasting council meetings is the possibility that more agenda items may be discussed behind closed doors than is really necessary. This is particularly prevalent where councils practice control-freakery to the extent Carmarthenshire does. The chief executive currently approves council and executive board agendas....well, most things in fact.

Executive Board meetings have always been jolly get-togethers, thorny issues ironed out before the public meetings and a pleasant round of rubber-stamping, mutual back-slapping and brown-nosing is had by all. Witnessed perhaps one or two members of the public who wandered in by mistake, only to find themselves escorted to the public gallery, and maybe a local reporter or two, there was not a lot to worry about.

Now the meetings are webcast, the scene remains the same but there has been a subtle difference, the first part of the meeting seems largely confined to the mundane, or, for effect, the latest exciting, (very exiting even), project which no one thought to ask the Carmarthenshire taxpayer if they wanted. Then, without discussion, the webcast is switched off and whatever is decided, and it's usually another raid on the taxpayer, emerges in the form of council press office spin, or appears weeks later in a cryptic sentence in the minutes.

Exec Board member Mair Stephens (Ind) uses an orange exempt report as a fan

As I said earlier, there have been seven exempt reports over the last four Exec Board meetings and next Monday's meeting sees yet another two.

One of these concerns the latest very, very exiting project, the 'Wellness Centre' at Delta Lakes, Llanelli, led by the council but with so many 'partners', (not least of all the super dooper visionary Swansea Bay City Region Board, and the health board, via 'ARCH', with its spare millions), the audit trail will be sparser then usual, if that's possible. Of course you can never have too many office complexes or private healthcare clinics, just what Llanelli needs...  I have mentioned this before here, but there is not a clue as to what is up for a decision on Monday. One press release put the wonderful plan at £60m, another at £100m.

We realise that most decisions of any importance are actually made in the Presidential Suite, with Emlyn Dole, or his predecessor dutifully polishing the CEO's CBE quietly in the corner, and indeed, some information may be 'commercially sensitive' but one of the findings of the WLGA governance report was for the council to review it's criteria and guidance over exemptions, prompted of course by the libel indemnity and pension scam scandals.
This seems to have happened, but with the opposite intent and quite the reverse effect...aside, that is, from the occasional leak.

Recent meetings have seen, for example, exempt discussions around the Pantycelyn school site and cyclepaths, this time it's a multi-million pound taxpayer draining plan for Llanelli, a plan likely to make the council's generosity to the Scarlets pale into comparison.
It is a reminder that things have not improved since the infamous 'top secret public toilet transfer report' from a couple of years back, refused even when pressed under FOI.

Finally, Police Commissioner, Christopher Salmon, reflecting on his recent defeat, had a few surprisingly frank words to say about Carmarthenshire Council...and so true;

"Carmarthenshire County Council. Wales’ answer to a Sicilian cartel. It’s everywhere you look (thankfully only in Carmarthenshire – so far as I can tell). It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hoards property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors."

Friday, 13 May 2016

Caebrwyn under fire - some updates

Please refer to my earlier post from April 15th; Caebrwyn under fire

With regards to Carmarthenshire council's decision to pursue me for £190,390 costs, the latest deadline to respond, before 'recovery action is instigated without further notice', was 4 pm today (Friday 13th).
I have replied and said that due to the recent legal threats made by a senior member of staff of Carmarthenshire council, it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment.

With regards to that senior member of staff, chief executive Mark James, having reported me to the police, I contacted Dyfed Powys Police myself today as five weeks have passed since I received the letter from his solicitors.
I was put through to the officer in charge of the investigation who confirmed that a complaint had been made. The police were currently waiting for further information from "the council" before proceeding further and I was told I would be contacted in due course by whatever method the police think appropriate. Apparently I would be "treated tidy"...reassuring to know they're not going to beat a confession out of me.
I was also told that it was up to the police to inform me, not Mr James via his solicitors.

I do not know if Mr James is returning to the High Court with regards to his allegations of contempt. I have not heard that matters have been withdrawn and at the moment I assume that the process is ongoing. The last I heard was that instructions had been given to pass papers to counsel for preparation.

As I have made clear, if it becomes necessary, I will defend all allegations against me, under any of the circumstances I have mentioned above.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

News in brief - Poverty, Pantycelyn and Parking

Pantycelyn update 17th May;
A council press release states that Rhys Pritchard Primary school will, depending on an officers report, move to the Pantycelyn site which will be 'partly refurbished', on the condition that the Rhys Pritchard site will then be sold off. Why this had to be decided in secret is beyond me.

Rhys Pritchard primary school

Poverty Pam
Some of us have often wondered if there is a joker in County Hall who likes to dish out inappropriate portfolios to certain members. A fine example is deputy leader Cllr Pam Palmer (Ind) who either now or in the past has had 'modern government', the press and 'Youth Ambassador' in her remit. She is also the 'Anti-poverty champion'. You may recall, a couple of weeks ago her outrage and disgust over a proposed pay cut and that, in fact, she was worth far more than the £31,250 she currently stashes in her Hermes handbag, so to speak.

In a report next week, to be considered by Pam, it seems that in order to appear to be actually doing something a Tackling Poverty Advisory Panel should be set up, chaired by Pam, this is in addition to the Tackling Poverty Focus Group, and will provide 'overarching' support and monitor the 'Tackling Poverty Action Plan'.
Who on earth dreams these things up.

Pantycelyn School
With Carmarthenshire Council apparently embracing all things transparent it is notable that over four meetings of the Executive Board there have been no less than seven exempt items. These are items deemed too sensitive, for whatever reason, for the press and public to hear and there is never any discussion over the application of the public interest test.

One item, at the end of March, stands out for caebrwyn but tomorrow's meeting (9th May) sees two items, one of which concerns the future of the now defunct Pantycelyn High School site in Llandovery. The school finally closed its doors a few months ago as the new secondary school opened in Ffairfach, Llandeilo. No one wanted Pantycelyn school to close, nor for the pupils to have to travel miles to Llandeilo, but that's another story.
Campaigners opposing closure were naturally accused, by County Hall, of standing in the way of childrens' education. Divide and conquer being the preferred tactic of the inhabitants of Jail Hill.

Llandovery is now noticeably quieter without the schoolkids, dying in fact. However, long before the school closed the council were formulating planning briefs to sell it off with planning permission for 45 houses on the majority of the site. Rumours abounded that the deeds of land stated the grounds were to be reverted back to the family which originally owned the site. I don't know what happened about that.

Plans were recently mooted by the town Council and other interested groups for the current primary school in Llandovery, Ysgol Rhys Pritchard to be moved to the Pantycelyn site and as the closure of every village school in the area is almost complete it's not an unreasonable idea. However, such a move wouldn't come cheap and with County Hall taking a massive axe to school budgets this might not be feasible.

The Pantycelyn site forms a sizeable chunk of Llandovery, whatever is being decided is crucial to the future of the town and, more importantly, the people who live there.
What could possibly be discussed that warrants closed doors?

Pantycelyn be demolished or not?
Car Parking review
A whole year ago a cross-party 'Task and Finish' group was set up to report on the controversial subject of car parking charges in Carmarthenshire. Last October there was a one month, two hour, free parking initiative in Llanelli town centre but calls were rejected, by Plaid, for a similar exercise in Ammanford a few weeks ago.

The free Christmas parking disappeared a few years ago, replaced by five days free parking (if there was a 'properly' organised event) per year, but excluded the whole of December. Calls have also been made to drop the Sunday charges.

Member of the Task and Finish group, Cllr Ivor Jackson parking his car in 2012

As I mentioned last year Carmarthenshire's profit from parking charges increased from £487,000 to £795,000 from 2013 to 2014 and it's a lucrative business. Granted some of the revenue is used to improve car parks etc and easing parking charges is only one way to compete with the internet and out of town shopping centres but it is one that the council does have the power to influence.

The long awaited report finally materialises at a scrutiny meeting next week, it bears a markedly similar tone to an officers report from last September. Anyway, it seems there were mixed results from the Llanelli free parking initiative and instead of increased demand the demand merely shifted to the free slot. However, had the free slot been between say 10am to noon, rather than the twilight hours of 3 to 5 pm it might have proved a little more effective. So there will be no more free parking initiatives, bad luck Ammanford.

The 5 day per year free 'event' parking will be extended to 7 days but will not only exclude the whole of December, but also the whole of November, to catch those early Christmas shoppers. It also looks like the Sunday charges are here to stay....and finally, in an unfortunate typo the 'policy implications' of the parking review have been confused with substance misuse services..

Friday, 6 May 2016

Assembly Election 2016 - Carmarthenshire results

Update 8th May - Dyfed Powys Police Commissioner election;

After going to a second preference count, the final winner was Dafydd Llywelyn, Plaid Cymru, who beat the previous Commissioner, Christopher Salmon, Conservative, by 75,158 votes to 59,302.
Kevin Madge (Lab), Richard Church (Libdem), Des Parkinson (UKIP) and William Davies (Ind) were eliminated after the first preference count.
The Police Commissioner's salary is £65,000.

*  *  *

Welsh Assembly election 5th May

I will leave the detailed election analysis for others to chew over, there's plenty out there if you're so inclined. So I'll be brief.

With Carms East and Dinefwr a predictably safe seat for Plaid Cymru, and Carmarthen West and South Pembs a safe Tory seat, the attention centred around Llanelli where a close fight between Plaid Cymru and Labour saw Plaid pipped at the post.

The Mid and West Wales regional vote (I have no idea how this works..ah, have now checked it out here) saw two Labour AMs, one Plaid and one UKIP returned. The one kipper being Neil Hamilton. Less said about that the better.

Across Wales Labour retained their hold though fell two seats short of the 31 seat majority. Former local government minister Leighton Andrews (Lab) lost his seat to Leanne Wood (Plaid) which might stall the council merger plans which were his baby. Disappointingly the regional vote returned seven UKIP candidates to the Welsh Assembly. The Libdems only managed to return one AM, their party leader Kirsty Williams (update 18.47, she's stepped down as leader).
One thing that remains apparent is the ability of defeated politicians, the morning after, to still claim that it was all, in fact, a resounding success.

If you're already missing the relentless campaigning, the EU referendum is just around the corner. Hopefully there won't be any cock-ups with the ballot papers next time.

Despite the recent and ongoing attacks by the Returning Officer, this blog will continue and will focus rather more on the local council elections when they come round in May 2017, that's if Carmarthenshire still exists (which it probably will).

Anyway here are the Carmarthenshire 2016 Assembly results;

Llanelli - turnout 47%

Lee Waters - Labour - 10,267
Helen Mary Jones - Plaid Cymru - 9,885
Ken Rees - UKIP - 4,132
Stefan Ryszewski - Conservative - 1,937
Sian Caiach - People First - 1,113
Guy Smith - Green - 427
Gemma Bowker - Libdem - 355

Carmarthenshire East and Dinefwr - turnout 54%

Adam Price - Plaid Cymru 14,427
Stephen Jeacock - Labour - 5,727
Matthew Paul - Conservative - 4,489
Neil Hamilton - UKIP - 3,474
William Powell - Libdem - 837
Freya Amesbury - Green - 797

Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire - turnout 50%

Angela Burns - Conservative - 10,355
Marc Tierney - Labour - 6,982
Simon Thomas - Plaid Cymru - 5,459
Allen Brookes - UKIP - 3,300
Chris Overton - Save Withybush - 1,638
Valerie Bradley - Green - 804
Alistair Cameron - Libdem - 699

Mid and West Wales Regional seats;

Neil Hamilton (UKIP)
Joyce Watson (Lab)
Eluned Morgan (Lab)
Simon Thomas (Plaid)

Plenty of coverage online at BBC Wales and if you prefer blogs, Oggy Bloggy has a good summary. 
The Police Commissioner election result will be declared on Sunday the 8th May.

8th May; As you can see from above, County Councillor Sian Caiach, who has my wholehearted support, stood for the Assembly election in Llanelli under the People First banner, she has written a brief blog post here. Here's an extract concerning the count;

"We had 3 recounts, all of which had different results but all favoured Labour. In the third recount 100 votes not belonging to UKIP were found in the UKIP bundles, 50 for Plaid and 50 for Labour, I believe. The returning officer argued that as Plaid were still behind we should stop now and Plaid agreed.I was left thinking of exactly how accurate are the results are everywhere else? After all if they are not close, they are never checked."

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Senior councillors' pay cut "banged on the head"

There is nothing quite so nauseating to the general public as watching a small bunch of overpaid, executive councillors, filled with a ridiculous and deeply mistaken sense of their own importance, bemoaning the fact that they're not paid enough money. Aided and abetted by a chief executive, with, some say, equally charming attributes.

This was the item at Monday's executive board meeting which took longer to mumble through than anything else on the agenda. After some self-congratulatory nonsense, mainly from Meryl over the decision to locate the new archives at the back of Carmarthen library, and a hasty trip through the overspends in the budget monitoring reports, the conversation then turned to the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales' (IRPW) recommendations over senior councillors' pay.

But back briefly to the archives and, whilst the plan is to be welcomed, it must be remembered that the sudden necessity to spend £2m (and £600,000 removing the mould) on the new archives whilst, with the other hand, cutting over £3.6m from this year's school budgets and offloading parks and playgrounds, has been a result of 15 years of neglect and lack of investment by County Hall itself. Had various campaigners, bloggers, and Friends of the Archives not dragged the matter up from it's mouldering grave then that's exactly where the irreplaceable history of Carmarthenshire would have stayed.

Having said that it was interesting to note that apparently the new archive was to become officially Accredited as a repository by 2017 which doesn't leave much time to build the thing. There was no hint of a time frame and the future management and the additional funding which will be required was still something of a mystery. But, according to Meryl, the priceless documents were all 'safe in their hands'....hopefully safer than other 'jewels in the crown'.

Anyway, as I've mentioned previously, the IRPW recommended a two tier system for senior councillors' pay with those with a lesser workload taking a 10% cut. However, the Panel left the final decision whether or not to implement this up to local authorities. In Carmarthenshire, the Democratic Services Committee decided not to bother.

Pam Palmer (Ind) was first up with the comments and was delighted to recommend that this silly idea be "banged on the head". It would have been 'divisive' she said and 'would have caused problems' (that's my arm-wrestling contest idea out the window then). The public just don't realise how hard they work..

Meryl (Ind) was up next questioning the independence of the Panel given that it was in receipt of a letter from ministers. Well, Meryl I guess it's probably as independent as the legal advice you were fed when rubber-stamping unlawful blank cheques to Mr James...though that didn't seem to bother anyone at the time. Why, she wondered, should AMs and MPs have pay rises and they didn't? Executive Board members had enormous responsibilities and did very important could they encourage 'quality' people once the current batch (of 'quality' people, I imagine she meant..humility not being one of Meryl's strong points) retired?

At this point the chief executive chipped in, agreeing with Meryl's lament and also questioning the independence of the Panel...a panel which also has a say in his generous salary.
How odd, there's us, the general public having to trust the 'independence' of regulatory bodies when there's a whitewash report, yet when a modest pay cut for senior elected members is on the cards the panel is suddenly in the pocket of Welsh Government.

Pam was further moved to comment and said that sometimes she had phone calls in the middle of the night, presumably when a natural disaster hit Abergwili, she didn't charge...but if your washing machine broke down you were charged a call out fee! It was all outrageous and so unfair!

Cllr Pam Palmer

So, as a reminder as to just how hard done by the executive board really are, Emlyn Dole is on £48,000, Pam Palmer and Dai Jenkins are on £31,250 apiece and the seven remaining members, including Meryl trouser £29,000 each. Plus expenses. Not, most of us would think, figures to be sniffed at, but sniffing they were.

However, I'm not arguing against the basic allowance and without a doubt the body of councillors needs to be more diverse. Younger people need to be encouraged to stand, but throwing more money into the pot is not the answer - one option, considered last year, to change meeting times to suit working people, also received a swift 'bang on the head'...

As for the executive board, once these coveted, well-paid positions are based on ability instead of the current criteria of brown-nosing Mr James, we might actually be getting something approaching 'quality'. We're all accustomed to this behaviour from Meryl and Pam, and indeed the previous Labour leadership, but for the Plaid executive to turn it into an art form was disappointing to say the least.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

This week's Cadno, from The Carmarthenshire Herald

As I have said here, Caebrwyn under fire, the chief executive of Carmarthenshire council, Mark James CBE seems currently preoccupied with having me locked up through both the criminal and civil courts. This is in conjunction with the pursuit of damages and costs.

Fellow blogger, Cneifiwr, made observations on the matter earlier here; Time bombs

The Cadno opinion piece, republished in full below, in this week's Carmarthenshire Herald, also makes some interesting observations;

Cadno's lance 
Astrology, readers, Cadno has no truck with it. 
In Cadno’s view, the fault lies in ourselves, not in our stars. We are all responsible for our conscious actions, whether they be words or deeds. 
Cadno is very big on personal responsibility. Unless there is some sort of medical or psychiatric explanation that negates personal fault, he is very much of the opinion that individuals shoulder the consequences of their actions. 
Of course, in Council Chief Executive Mark James’s case that means getting someone else to shoulder the burden. 
Cadno has noted with a mixture of bemusement and dismay as Carmarthenshire County Council, in the interests of the public purse, is hell bent on pursuing money it knows it will never get out of impecunious blogger Jacqui Thompson. That, of course, is the County Council’s right but the fact it has the right does not make it right to exercise it. 
The Council provided Mr James with what was ruled an unlawful indemnity for his costs. The key word here is ‘unlawful’. Mrs Thompson has claimed that the indemnity was not offered until after Mr James had offered to settle a libel action brought against him by Mrs Thompson. 
The question arises, therefore, as to whether Mr James would have pursued his own counterclaim against Mrs Thompson without the assurance that win lose or draw his costs would be met. 
It appears from what Mrs Thompson has reported on the timing of events that he would not. In such circumstances, if Mrs Thompson’s account is correct, it was the height of folly for the Council – even under the previous supine administration – to agree to the indemnity. 
The outside observer might reasonably concluded that it was no wonder Carmarthenshire long had a reputation of being an officer-led council: and led by the nose, too. 
An interesting point now arises as to whether the Council can spend further public money in pursuit of an object ruled unlawful by the Wales Audit Office. This is not a straightforward question. 
The costs were awarded lawfully by the Court, but the costs themselves were incurred unlawfully. There is a clear issue here with two wrongs not making a right. What would the Wales Audit Office think, for example, of the prospect of the Council spending potentially thousands of pounds of Council Tax payers’ money to recoup sums paid under an unlawful indemnity? 
In addition, Mr James has now rattled his sabre at Jacqui Thompson, with his solicitors alleging breaches of undertakings given in relation to a Court Order granted at the conclusion of the libel action between the Reverend James and her. 
Cadno does not know to what Mr James is sabre rattling, but it surely cannot be his economy with the truth regarding the existence of offers (plural) made by Mrs Thompson to pay off his claim against her post-judgement. 
That would be nonsense, since it was Mr James who opened the door to revealing their existence after he commented that offers to pay had not been made. In such a case, Mr James would be seeking to benefit from his own misstatement of the truth: due no doubt to the passage of time and the vagaries of memory. 
In addition, it would surely be a matter of public interest that Mr James was granted an indemnity by his employer only after he had decided that the game was not worth the candle if he was coughing up his legal bills from his own resources. 
That issue alone gives Cadno pause to wonder whether or not councillors were made aware of the existence of an alleged offer being made to settle by Mr James before granting the indemnity. 
If they were not informed of such an offer, it is at least arguable that the indemnity was offered on a false prospectus. That, too, is a matter of legitimate public interest. 
Unless Mrs Thompson gave an undertaking not to refer to the existence of an offer of settlement, it is difficult to see to what Mr James has taken umbrage. It is safer not to speculate, or posit a view on hypotheticals. 
However, if Mr James did make an offer to settle before the indemnity was granted that is clearly a matter of compelling public interest into the circumstances in which the Council went on to write him a blank cheque for almost £200,000 in costs. 
So, Cadno will not dip his paws further into the hypothetical waters save to observe that he is disappointed that a Plaid Cymru administration, whose members were united in opposition in criticising the previous Labour-led administration for giving Mr James an indemnity, are now seeking to pursue the matter further against someone unable to pay. 
There is no practical justification for taking that step. It is an appalling political misjudgement. It is, equally, a demonstration of the existence of Stockholm syndrome among some Plaid members of the Executive Board. 
Of course, the Labour opposition has been unremarkably silent on the matter. It was to their enduring shame and disgrace that they not only endorsed the decision to offer and indemnity but spent tens of thousands of pounds of public money seeking to defend it from being ruled unlawful by the Wales Audit Office. 
And for whose benefit, readers? 
Yours? Cadno’s? Who benefited from that decision? 
Counting in officer hours expended and the costs of administration, we can assess that it is well over three hundred grand of Council Tax payer money and resources that have now been washed down the Towy while the Council defends intolerable waste. 
It has made Carmarthenshire County Council a byword for being a haven for the sort of smug, insular and unaccountable misadministration and mal-administration that gave Cardiff Bay all the excuses the pathetic failures at the heart of the last Welsh Government wanted to rip apart local government in Wales. 
Cadno recalls writing a column filled with withering scorn for the proposition keenly, if incoherently, espoused by former leader Kevin Adequate and other members of the then Executive Board that Carmarthen was a council the rest of Wales looked up to. 
But even Kevin Adequate acknowledged that the saga of the indemnity and the battle with the WAO had harmed the Council’s reputation. 
Has no one at County Hall yet learned that the longer the issue endures, the longer the agony will be? 
It’s time for Carmarthen to be relieved: it’s time to lance the boil, readers.
All it takes is a little prick...
(Republished with permission) 

Friday, 22 April 2016

21,800 postal ballot papers scrapped...and other news - updated

Update 26th April;
The postal voter who contacted me (see earlier update) has been told that there is indeed another mistake, this time over the colours. She has been told to ignore the advice about colours and make sure that she votes with the regional ballot paper with the correct wording.
With 21,800 ballot papers affected this is a serious mess and they will need to be very carefully counted.
There are now 43,600 postal ballot papers floating around mid and west Wales, all shades of grey.
As a reminder, the Returning Officer, Mark James, is appointed under the Representation of the People act 1983 and is legally responsible for the "preparation of all ballot papers". He will also be entitled to fees in the region of £30,000.
I understand complaints have been made.

Update 25th April;
The instructions given by the Returning Officer was to bin the 'grey' postal ballot papers and use the newly issued 'tan' ballot papers when they arrived. Votes already cast on the old 'grey' papers will not be counted.
I've been contacted by a postal voter, a pensioner, who has said that the old ballot papers were in fact pale green, not grey, and the new papers are not tan, but grey.
Presumably therefore if they send back the new ballot paper which is not tan, but grey, the election office will think it's the old grey, but actually green, ballot paper and it will be null and void.

And given this total chaos, I wouldn't be surprised if the regional election was also declared null and void.
If I was a candidate I'd be fuming.

*  *  *  * .

As the Herald reports, the potential for electoral chaos is on the cards with over 20,000 postal ballot papers for the Regional Assembly election being scrapped, at unknown cost, after an error was discovered. The ballot papers cover three counties and the error, in the instructions of how to vote, was not detected until they'd been sent out. Ceredigion, Preseli Pembrokeshire, and Carmarthen West and South Pembs being the areas affected, Carms East and Dinefwr, Llanelli, are not.

The Electoral Commission declared that the error was misleading for voters and despite the Returning Officer Mark James, legally responsible for the smooth running of the regional vote, seeking advice from 'the leading QC in the country' the papers had to be reprinted.

The Returning Officer, who can receive a fee of up to £4,730 for each constituency, blamed the mess on a 'most unfortunate error by the printers' which is interesting as it could be assumed perhaps that the printers would print the template given to them, not be responsible for the actual content.

Anyway, the problem now is that many of those who received a postal vote ballot paper may have already voted. Their vote will not count and they will have to vote again when the new papers, and new prepaid envelopes, arrive. Many who vote by post are elderly or vulnerable people and this mess could cause confusion and, at the very least, a reluctance to trek out to the postbox to recast their vote.

As an aside, I recall that during the local elections in 2012 some sitting councillors, not a million miles from Caebrwyn were so kind and helpful they personally assisted the elderly folk with their postal votes and even offered to pop them in the post box for them...allegedly.

However, this is not the first hiccup in this year's election. At the end of March, due to a brief 'technical issue' with Carmarthenshire Council printers, some requests for postal votes disappeared into the ether and alerts had to be sent out for anyone who had requested an application during the timeframe to re-apply.

The Returning Officer, Mark James, is no stranger to controversy of course and it was only a couple of years ago that Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards called for 'ministerial intervention', questioning whether Mr James should preside over the European election whilst on gardening leave during the criminal investigation following the unlawful payments scandal.

Earlier, in 2012, there was controversy over an 'advance payment' of £20,000 to Mr James for the local elections, a payment made before the number of contested seats were known, and in the previous financial year.

I would imagine that the regional parties and candidates are not best pleased with this latest cock-up.

*  *  *  *

I notice that the cost of democracy has been tallied up for the municipal year. Back in February the council's budget costed in a reduction in travel expenses for councillors over the next couple of years, based on 'previous years' claims'. In fact they've gone up, from £46,027 in 2014/5 to £47,592 in 2015/6. It may be only £1500 but that's a fair few fills of the tank when petrol prices have actually gone down.

Also of interest is the total paid in councillor allowances, with very little evidence of civic belt tightening, the figure has gone from £1,267,556 in 2014/5, to £1,286,416 in 2015/6, an increase of £18,860...

*  *  *  *

After the recent flurry of secretive activity, it appears that Carmarthenshire Council's efforts to merge with the troubled Tai Cantref housing association has failed. With thanks to Jac o' the North's blog we learn that Cantref has instead plumped for Wales and West Housing based in Cardiff. 
Clearly Carmarthenshire Council was a basket case too far, even for Cantref.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Caebrwyn under fire

(Later post, 13th May; Caebrwyn under fire - some updates)

I have received a letter from solicitors representing the chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council Mark James. The letter alleges that I have breached undertakings relating to Mr James' counterclaim for libel, made further to the trial in 2013, on this blog.

As I do not agree, the letter makes clear that the chief executive intends to return to the High Court and commence proceedings against me for contempt of court.

The letter also informs me that the chief executive has referred matters to the police and asked them to conduct an investigation with a view to considering criminal prosecution for harassment, relating to the blog. A matter I will also defend if necessary.

In addition, I've had a letter from the council asking me to accept that I owe £190,390 to the council, confirm that I am willing to pay, and set out how I propose to do so, within 14 days....

I have nothing further to add at the moment. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

April shower...and the long grass

Unfortunately Meryl wasn't present at today's full council meeting to answer those awkward questions over Parc Howard from Cllrs Bill Thomas and Jan Williams. She was, we learned from Pam Palmer, resting following a surgical procedure on Monday. She wanted her deepest regret for not being there to answer those questions to be passed on to the councillors concerned...

What usually happens under these circumstances is that the question is not read out and the questioners will receive a written response at some distant point in the future, if they're lucky.

Fortunately, it seems that Cllrs Thomas and Williams had the foresight to withdraw the questions as soon as they had wind of Meryl's absence, to save them for a full council meeting when they are certain she will be present to give a straight answer, well, an answer anyway. 

Next up was a Motion from Labour to reconstitute, like powdered egg, the School Transport Appeals Panel, something they'd got rid of themselves in 2014 to save £30,000. What happens now is that applications to appeal for transport to schools outside the catchment area are processed by officers with most of them being turned down under strict criteria.

The Labour group admitted that they felt they'd made a mistake and local, democratic involvement, and an element of discretion, was important. It should, like the Housing Appeal Review Panel, be member, not officer, led. As a vehicle for public appeals, it should also be a politically balanced committee.

The Plaid amendment proposed that the arrangements should be changed but limited the Panel to two Executive Board Members and the local member for the relevant ward, with officers advising.

The chief executive, with his preference for all things officer-led, became involved and clearly wasn't keen on the Motion, nor, it has to be said, the Plaid amendment, but limiting a committee to two members of his dutiful Executive Board was probably the better of two evils. 

He accused the Labour proposer of merely trying to ensure that as many appeals as possible would be passed, shaking his head during the councillor's address and laughing at the ridiculousness of the idea.
Carmarthenshire, he said, would be the only authority in Wales with a member-led panel (and so would look foolish?) and to top it all, such a school transport 'free for all' would 'undermine rural schools'.

With the Mark James Council having closed forty-odd village schools over the past ten years I don't think a member-led transport appeal panel would make a lot of difference, to be honest.

Anyway, the Plaid amendment was duly carried, so, there will be no politically balanced committee to determine your school transport appeals.

Next was a Motion for a free parking pilot in Ammanford, another town centre in terminal decline. A similar pilot, for a couple of hours a day, had been approved for Llanelli last year but six months after the trial, the results are still a mystery.

Plaid put forward an amendment for council to refuse this motion as parking was still being considered by a Task and Finish group. Labour Cllr Terry Davies pointed out that this wasn't an amendment, it was a response, negating the Motion, and neither was it dated....he was surprised that our experienced chief executive had allowed it... 
Clearly Mr James approved of this amendment...

Agreed, there are many issues aside from free parking which affect town centre trade, and, as Plaid pointed out, the Welsh Government's decision to remove rate relief for small retail premises hasn't helped. Neither, I suppose, has online shopping, nor the whacking great Tesco, well away from the town centre with its massive free car park.

Anyway Cllr Edmunds, Labour leader, reminded councillors that they did have the power to implement this, it might help in the short term, and it was only a trial after all.

However, with the Plaid and Independent ranks in tightly whipped form today, their amendment was carried, so no free parking trial for Ammanford for the forseeable future.

Following that was Labour Cllr Ryan Thomas' Motion on the damning internal Audit Report on Pembrey Country Park and the Millenium Coastal Park. It was proposed that the full report be circulated and the findings checked over by the police and the Wales Audit Office.

Cllr Bill Thomas seconded the Motion and confirm that he, along with others (including me) had been hearing horror stories for a year or two.

Cllr Dole's response was deeply patronising. He was surprised to see this motion, the young councillor was clearly naive of the intricacies of Carmarthenshire council procedures, unlike Professor 'two barns' Dole I suppose... 
This was a 'Function of Audit', he said, and the Audit Committee had resolved to form an action plan, to be regularly spoon-fed monitored as officers sorted out the mess 'historic issues', full council was not the time nor the place... 
Mr James would have been proud,..

If there were any irregularities then councillors must put their trust in the chief executive and Linda Rees Jones to report them to the relevant external authorities.... Oh dear.

It doesn't seem so long ago that Plaid Cymru, in opposition, were clamouring for openness and transparency, and indeed blood, over those Wales Audit Office public interest things change. 

Cllr Edmunds spoke in support of the Motion and pointed out that the airing of serious internal issues in a public arena was what being 'open and transparent' was all about.

Later in the meeting Cllr Ryan Thomas asked again about the full report and apparently it hasn't been completed yet, which is strange given the specific and numerous serious breaches which appear to have taken place. When it was complete, senior officers, Chair of Audit etc would be given a copy. Whether all councillors would receive it, with acceptable redactions, remained to be seen. 

So, with more whipping, the whole business was successfully kicked into touch, No publicly available report, no reference to the police, and no reference to the Wales Audit Office.
Business as usual.

(15th April; Cadno's observations regarding this unsavoury business are this week's Carmarthenshire Herald, and it's well worth a read) 

Finally the curtains were drawn, the press, public and webcast viewers kicked out as the exempt item on Tai Cantref Housing Association came under discussion. Whether or not it was resolved to try and merge with a problem-riddled organisation, with almost its entire housing stock situated in another county, we'll have to wait and see..

Update 14th April; In the least surprising news of the week Carmarthenshire council have confirmed they're interested in forming a 'partnership' with Tai Cantref 

Webcast here

An indemnity...or not an indemnity?

As I have already mentioned, the Council's Executive Board have 'unanimously' decided to pursue me for £190,390 legal costs. At the same meeting, they decided to defer a decision on the £41,000 counterclaim costs - this is a messy business for County Hall, due to the unlawful indemnity, and would have come under a legal spotlight.

To add to the mess, the question has now arisen whether this was an 'indemnity' at all.

The indemnity, as we know, was declared unlawful by the Wales Audit Office and by virtually everyone else, including the Welsh Government, apart from Mr James and now, surprisingly, Plaid's Emlyn Dole, despite the offending 'libel costs clause' in the council's Constitution being suspended indefinitely in February 2014.

However, as several readers have pointed out, an indemnity is protection against future losses and should have only kicked-in if Mr James had lost his counterclaim. If had lost then the council would have coughed up public funds. If he won, which he did, then the costs were recoverable from the other side, in other words, me.

In fact the counterclaim costs were paid by the council as the case carried on and as the invoices rolled in, regardless of the outcome of Mr James' action. When the 'indemnity' was approved, the potential risk to the council on the counterclaim costs was estimated at £100,000, and it was "unclear" whether I would be able to pay if I lost.

So this wasn't any sort of 'protection against future losses', it was simply a blank cheque to launch a legal attack funded directly by the council.
With the 'indemnity' already flouting Welsh Government legislation, and the Derbyshire rule which prevents councils from suing for libel - the reality of the situation makes their position, legally and ethically, a damn sight worse. 

Vote for Sian Caiach and People First on May 5th!

Good luck to Sian Caiach and People First for the Llanelli constituency Assembly election, and the regional list, on May 5th. 
Sian is on Facebook and Twitter and her website is here.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

April Agenda - and Country Park questions

Later post 13th April, after the meeting; April shower...and the long grass 

* * *

Next Wednesday's (13th April) full council agenda has been published and whilst there are no questions from the public, there are a handful of questions and Motions from councillors. None, I note, relating to the extraordinary business over the exempt report from the last Executive Board meeting.

One issue which has been raised is the damning internal audit report into the facilities at Pembrey Country Park and the Millennium Coast. I mentioned this here, following the Audit Committee meeting a couple of weeks ago. The findings ranged from accounting improprieties to procurement issues and a general failure to follow procedure, quite a mess in fact.

This whole debacle was presented to the Audit Committee in the form of a brief two page summary, without the full report, which presumably detailed what had happened to arrive at these findings.
As I also said in my previous post, I have been hearing horror stories about these facilities for a couple of years and this report raises the question of how long senior management have been involved or at least aware of the 'historic issues'.
As we know, the council has plans to offload the whole leisure department, along with the parks, into a trust..or sell them off, either will do...

The Labour opposition group have tabled a Motion for the full report be made publicly available, for it to be referred to the police to see if there's been criminal wrongdoing, and to the Wales Audit Office to check for financial irregularities.
The Exec Board member, Cllr Dai Jenkins will also be asked whether or not he's actually seen the full report and how much public money is at risk and/or missing.

I suspect there will be a considerable amount of internal legal advice imparted over all this, of the 'incompetent and cavalier' variety to which we are so accustomed. I strongly suggest that the Plaid leadership put away the whitewash for once, join in the call for full transparency and support this motion.

The second issue sees Labour members Bill Thomas and Jan Williams demand evidence from Cllr Meryl Gravell (Ind) to back up her allegations that local residents and local politicians 'scuppered' a 2012 bid for Lottery funding. They claim to hold evidence to the contrary. They also want to know why Meryl failed to submit a second bid for funding in 2014.

Despite this cropping up at the previous two meetings, along with Meryl's 'That is what I was told and I stand by it' comment, nothing has appeared in the minutes. Now at least it will be on the record. She will be asked who told her and when, and whether she was given any documentary evidence to back it up. Hopefully they'll be ready with a supplementary question.

Also on the agenda is a mysterious reference to Tai Cantref Housing Association. This is an 'exempt' report so the webcast will be switched off. It also features (also exempt) on the agenda for Monday's Executive Board meeting, in fact it's the only item. There is nothing to indicate what is being decided. (See update below)

The housing association supplies social housing in Ceredigion and north Carmarthenshire and has over 1400 properties, mostly in Ceredigion with only 170 in Carms. However, the Welsh Government stepped in last summer and commissioned a full report following allegations from whistleblowers relating to mismanagement, procurement issues and the treatment of staff.
Despite the WG taking this unusually serious step, they subcontracted the intervention to a private company

That report has never, to my knowledge, been made publicly available and its release refused by the Welsh Government on the grounds that it could  “destabilise the association” and “prejudice its commercial interests”, but after the report was completed in December last year, the chief officer of the Association was placed on 'leave' whilst the findings were considered.

At the beginning of March the chief officer left and the Chairman of the board stepped down, a couple of weeks later the Association announced it was 'seeking a merger' and would be 'engaging with potential partners'.

At the end of March urgent calls were then being made, from Plaid AM Elin Jones, and the tenants, were for a public consultation prior to any merger

All of which suggests that things are far from healthy at Cantref. One can only guess at what our Exec Board and Council will decide. Presumably, in light of a possible take-over, the sizeable amount of public cash it receives as a social landlord, as well as the still-unseen Welsh Government report, it will be reviewing the Council's current arrangements with the Association.

Hopefully it won't be a decision to take over Cantref and thereby have one basket case absorbed by another.

Incidentally, the interim director brought in to run Cantref for the time being is the current CEO of Carmarthen-based Bro Myrddin Housing Association, who is also the sister of Exec Board Member Hazel Evans (Plaid). Although Cllr H Evans declares an interest, fortunately her portfolio is not housing. The housing portfolio is held by Exec Board Cllr Linda Evans, who happens to be Cllr Dole's sister-in-law. It's a small world here in Carmarthenshire.

As the end of another municipal year draws to a close, the meeting will also see the quaint Carmarthenshire tradition of 'nominating the Chair of Council'. This doesn't involve anything democratic, and doesn't even require any ability. The only criteria for the reward is years of loyalty to the regime.

Labour, Plaid and Pam's Independent Party take it in turns each year to be Chair, (£21,500 plus expenses), so the current Labour Vice Chair will replace Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths as Chair, and the new Vice Chair will be selected from the Independent ranks, if any are awake. You can look forward to the full blown ceremony at next month's AGM.
Can't wait.

Update 12th April - As suggested in the comments section it appears that the council are considering a merger with Tai Cantref, there is more over on Jac o the North's blog. Whatever the Executive Board recommended will be discussed at tomorrow's council meeting as an exempt item.
There is some speculation as to whether a merger with a council is legal, and financially the council will be saddled with trying to turn round a failing housing association with the majority if its homes in another county.
It also seems that Carmarthenshire Council is not the only bidder.

Friday, 1 April 2016

"Council leader under fire over leak to local press" - The Carmarthenshire Herald

Update 13th April; The full article in the Carmarthenshire and Llanelli Herald is now online; Blogger 'in dark' over meeting

* * * * *

Update 6th April; For a neat, considered and excellent piece on the libel case and subsequent events, please click on the link to Cneifiwr's blog;

Y Cneifiwr - A Tangled Web

* * * * *

Further to my previous post, 'Carmarthenshire Council to pursue me for £190,390 libel costs', and as I ponder just what their 'opening dialogue' with me could possibly be, the Carmarthenshire Herald has dug deeper into the curious manner in which I learned of the decision.

Pic source; Carmarthenshire Herald on Facebook

As I mentioned, I didn't discover what had been decided at the closed session meeting until a reporter from the Carmarthen Journal phoned me for a comment a week later. The minutes were not published until the following afternoon.

Not only was the paper furnished with a statement from Plaid Cymru Council leader Emlyn Dole but also published specific information which could only have come from a copy of the 'exempt' report. An exempt report is rather like a classified document, not for the eyes of the press and public;

"The councillors on the board were asked whether they wished to pursue Mrs Thompson for the costs awarded against her in the council's favour, and if so, whether for the first £127,625 or for the full £190,390 awarded by the court.

It is owed £127,625 — an insurance excess payment — the balance of £62,765 would be paid to the council's insurers.

Council leader Emlyn Dole has confirmed the council will be going after the full costs awarded at the High Court." 
(Carmarthen Journal)

Despite being a party to the case, I had been patiently waiting for the verdict since the meeting on the 21st March having been told, by the head of legal, that I would only be notified once all 74 councillors had been informed.

The Herald asked a couple of councillors, namely Anthony Jones (Lab) and People First's Sian Caiach if they had indeed been 'informed' prior to Cllr Dole's tete a tete with the newspaper. Unsurprisingly, they hadn't heard a thing. Oh dear.

The Herald posed a series of straightforward questions to the council;
Could they have a copy the Leader's statement, and the head of legal's assessment of the prospects for recovery of the money?
Did the council think it appropriate for a member or officer to make a public statement without informing the other party to the litigation of its substance?
Could the council to confirm if, when and how all councillors were notified of the decision before Cllr Dole's leak of confidential information?
When, and how, did the legal department inform Mrs Thompson?

All questions were completely ignored, aside from the request for Cllr Dole's one line statement which had appeared in the Journal, adding "No further information will be provided".

Of course it seems like only yesterday (actually it was last June) that Plaid members took the outraged moral high ground to publicly denounce another 'leak'. Perhaps Cllr Dole has a short memory...

Some of us can also recall extensive Plaid criticism of the Labour administration for misusing the council press office and further outrage over the chief executive's long-running efforts to control the local press.

How things change.
As I mentioned here (towards the end of the post) I made a complaint to the council concerning the chief executive's statement to the Western Mail a few weeks ago. I was concerned that Mr James' use of council facilities to channel untruthful allegations about members of the public was unbecoming for a CBE-holder and impending Returning Officer, and possibly breached the Officers' Code of Conduct.

My complaint was, naturally, dismissed by the ever-loyal head of legal, Linda Rees Jones as a 'private matter' between Mr James and myself but as I'd also raised the query of compliance, or otherwise, with the Council's Press and Media Protocol, she would let the Corporate Complaints department deal with that issue.

I was rather surprised therefore to receive an email yesterday, not from 'Complaints', but from Council leader Emlyn Dole;

Dear Mrs Thompson,

I refer to your email of 14th March, 2016 in which you seek to make a complaint against the Chief Executive.

I have given this matter careful consideration and I concur with the comments made by the Head of Legal Services regarding the substantive issue raised in your email. I am firmly of the view that this is indeed a private matter between yourself and Mr James.

Furthermore, having considered the facts in this case, I am not persuaded that there has been a breach of the Council’s Press and Media Protocol and have no further comments to make on this particular matter.

Yours sincerely

Councillor Emlyn Dole – Leader of the Council

I thanked Cllr Dole for his disappointing but predictable response and asked him to pass on my thanks to whoever wrote the email...

The aim to become the 'most open and transparent council in Wales' continues to fail dismally and the steady transformation of Leader Dole into the Organ Grinder's monkey appears to be complete.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Carmarthenshire Council to pursue me for libel costs

I have learned, from today's Carmarthen Journal that the Executive Board, at it's secret meeting on the 21st March, resolved to join the queue and pursue me for the costs of the libel case from 2013, well, £190,000 of the costs.

I did not hear a thing from the council until 1pm today (30th) but had been told, on the 21st March by the head of legal, that I would be informed once all members had been notified of the decision. Whether they have been or not is not clear, but the Journal certainly has been notified, and appears, from the details within the article, to have information from the exempt reports.

However, executive leakage etc is rather by-the-by at the moment for Caebrwyn.

The email I received today at 1pm, from head of legal Linda Rees Jones merely provided me with a helpful link to the just-published minutes of the meeting and to announce that, in regards to the £190,000, they will be 'opening a dialogue' with me shortly.

As regards to the costs of the publicly funded illegal counterclaim, the Minutes state;
"That consideration of pursuing the costs awarded in the counter claim be deferred"
With the £41,000 counterclaim costs excluded, then this is not only a deliberate move to avoid a court challenge but a recognition of illegality, rendering Mr James' damages null and void. They can defer it all they like. It's been paid, it was public money and it was illegal - it's a mess.

It is not clear exactly how the council will try and enforce payment of the £190,000 cost order. They're not going to get it and are now going to spend even more good money going after zero. I'm as curious as I'm sure they are as to how they're going to do that. Perhaps they're going to bankrupt me themselves, saving Mr James the expense? The threats from his bailiffs continue. Not that that route would be productive, perhaps they'll demand blood instead.
Perhaps I should resort to fervent prayer like the Rev Dole, Mark James CBE and the rest.

I do not know what the report to the Executive Board stated or whether it was accurate. However what I do know was that in December 2011, around three months after my claim both  I and my solicitors were given to understand that a settlement had been reached which was agreeable to all sides.

Mr James had agreed to  retract his remarks and undertake not to repeat them, and he and the council had agreed to a contribution towards costs and nominal damages. I had also agreed, reluctantly, for the settlement to be confidential which was insisted upon, and which was of of paramount importance, to Mr James

For reasons which remain unknown, and to the consternation of both sets of solicitors, neither the council, nor Mr James followed through with this and shortly afterwards brought forward the counterclaim.

In my opinion, as soon as the whiff of an indemnity was in the air, the hotels and first class travel was booked and the civic limo was wheel spinning out of County Hall.

The result, for the taxpayer, was that the litigation and the costs escalated and cost hundreds of thousands pounds more than it might have done.

Mr James knew he would be indemnified - the defence and counterclaim, a complex and lengthy piece of work, was served two days after the original exec board meeting where he was given the blank cheque.

However, Plaid Cllr Dole's statement about the "interests of the public purse" don't seem to extend to Mark James' illegal counterclaim. Rather like they didn't extend to the £280,000 bung to the Scarlets to cover a debt.

Anyway, I'll let you know when I hear more.

The fight, clearly, goes on.

Recent post, March 18th; The matter of costs

Update 31st March, BBC Wales; Blogger Jacqui Thompson faces £190,000 court costs

Update 15th April; Chief executive threatens further legal action in the High Court and has reported me to the police, see Caebrwyn Under fire 

Friday, 25 March 2016

Pembrey and Millenium Country Parks - A fine mess...

See also later post 7th April; April agenda - country park questions 

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that a worrying internal report on the leisure facilities at Pembrey Country Park and the Millennium Coastal Park was due to be considered by the Council's Audit Committee. The committee met last Tuesday and thanks to the Carmarthenshire Herald and reporter Alan Evans we have some idea how things panned out, I'll link to the Herald article when it goes online. (Now online here)

The report, or, as the council likes to call these things, the 'Review', was requested by the Director of Communities, having taken over the responsibility for leisure following the departure of the previous Director, Dave Gilbert OBE (now an advisor to the Swansea Bay City Region board). 'Historic issues', whatever they were, were to be looked at.

Anyway, the 'Review', which also included Burry Port Harbour and the Ski Centre at Pembrey Country Park, found there were 'fundamental weaknesses' and a "general non-compliance with the Authorities established procedures", in other words, 'an almighty mess', action was considered to be 'urgent'. The specifics were listed thus;

Non compliance with Financial Procedure Rules (including contract and
quotation procedure rules and Transport & Engineering Unit Policy)
1. Authority’s procurement arrangements have not been fully complied with 
2. Procedures for collecting and accounting for income need to be improved to minimise
the risk of monies being misappropriated 
3. Procedures for accounting for assets need to be improved to minimise the risk of
assets being stolen or misused, and to ensure that maintenance programmes are
adhered to 
4. The management and administration of agreements / leases for private enterprises
need to be improved / tightened to clarify responsibilities and maximise income 
5. Procedures for the use of facilities by third parties need to be improved 
Risk Management and Business Continuity Strategy
1. Health & safety issues have been identified that may present a risk for the Authority
and its employees; 
Employee issues: 
1. Staff working hours including TOIL [Time Off In Lieu] arrangements are not always being recorded and are not being managed at an appropriate level 
2. Employee Declaration of Interests were not being completed appropriately.
The big question which arose at the meeting, mainly from Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab), was how on earth had these findings been arrived at, where was the full report? Had there been fraud? What actually instigated the 'review'? How long had senior officers been aware of these 'historic issues'? He also suggested that an independent third party be brought in to investigate.

Even this scant two page brief makes for grave reading and the failure and reluctance to present the full findings suggested that the detail was in fact, damning.

I have been contacted over the past couple of years by anonymous sources alleging 'procedural improrieties' and even criminal activity at the parks and facilities, and so has the Herald. When the paper raised the issues with the council last year, all were denied.
Along with the rest of us, the Herald wonders just what has been swept under the "already lumpy carpets" at County Hall. As we know, blowing the whistle at Carmarthenshire Council is not easy, particularly if you value both your job and indeed your sanity.

The officers present at the meeting, Head of Leisure, Ian Jones and Head of Audit, Phil Sexton denied that fraud had been found. They talked about 'issues', 'challenges' and 'weaknesses', and areas which needed to be 'strengthened and improved' without identifying what exactly was wrong. No surprises there.

With the Plaid deputy leader Dai Jenkins vowing to leave no stone unturned, the reality was that the Committee, in their impotence, could do no more than formulate an Action Plan to monitor 'improvement', spoon-fed for the next eighteen months or so, by officers. As Cllr Thomas said, the 'Review' should be the start of a full investigation, not the end.

Let's hope for better this time, particularly as the Plaid led administration are fully behind the decision to offload the whole leisure department to a 'trust', which will, of course result in even less democratic oversight than already exists. Presumably they're also fully behind the long-running Mark and Meryl Masterplan to sell-off chunks of the Pembrey peninsular to their preferred bidders.

Personally, I'm expecting more lumpy carpets.

Also on the agenda was further evidence that the council's grant management procedures are still floundering with one report (a set of minutes from the Grants Panel) listing no less than six projects, including the Strategic Regeneration Areas at Cross Hands and Kidwelly, being subject to 'Qualification letters' from the Wales Audit Office. The minutes states that the issues with the WAO are 'being resolved' and provides no more detail than that. As per ususal.

*   *   *

For those wondering about the outcome of last Monday's exempt report entitled 'Enforcement of Costs', well, so am I.
I blogged about it prior to the meeting here; The Matter of Costs
Whatever the Executive Board decided, or didn't decide behind closed doors, rest assured I will, in due course, have plenty to say about it.
As for the Chief Executive's bailiffs, they continue to phone and I continue to tell them there's nothing doing, the cupboards are bare. Their threats appear to be escalating and, in direct proportion, so is my resolve.

Friday, 18 March 2016

The Matter of Costs

After dealing with bailiffs, instructed by Mr James to recover his damages (now £35,000 plus daily interest) for the past few weeks, Monday's (21st March) Executive Board agenda includes an exempt item titled 'Enforcement of Costs Order'. These costs are around £230,000.

As I am the party affected by the Exec Board decision on Monday I asked the Head of Law, Linda Rees Jones for sight of the report and questioned why, as all this information is in the public domain, and was a result of action in an open court, the discussion was being held in secret.

She refused to let me see the report as it contains 'Information relating to the financial affairs of any particular person' blah blah. That person being me.
Despite the title of the item, Ms Rees Jones explains that they are not looking at options for recovery but rather the principle of recovery. Ah, so that's alright then....

Aside from the fact (which I presume they are all aware) that I haven't got £230,000, this all raises several interesting points.

Should the council decide to take action for recovery, a proportion of these costs, around £41,000, relates to Mr James' counterclaim. This makes for very muddy waters for the council - this was the unlawful payment and would make for an interesting public law challenge.

It would also be interesting to see the Plaid leadership actively pursuing the effects of something they once opposed so publicly in those far off days in opposition - even if Cllr Dole is now so deeply enamoured by the Mark and Meryl Empire that he's erased all that unpleasantness from his memory.....

Mr James, concerned primarily with his own pocket rather than the taxpayer's, has already got in there first with his enforcement actions, and by trying to secure his personal damages, attempted to ensure that there was nothing left for the council. As it happens, there is nothing for him either, as I have made clear.

In my view, given the reality of my situation, the Exec Board have no option other than to waive the costs as irrecoverable, unless they're going to join with Mr James, stick the knife in and maybe make me bankrupt, a pointless and expensive exercise but one which would ensure that, as a bankrupt, I'd be unable to stand for the County Council, or even Community Council elections next year.

If I were a devotee of conspiracy theories I might even suspect that Mr James could instruct the Exec Board to waive the costs in the misguided belief that in bankruptcy, the council would be eliminated as creditors, leaving more cash for his own wallet. He'd be very disappointed.

There is an old saying that if you owe the bank a couple of hundred pounds then you worry, if you owe the bank a million, they worry. The other old saying is that you can't get blood from a stone.

My advice to the Exec Board, and the council as a whole, is to waive goodbye to these costs on Monday and, at the same time, wave goodbye to the chief executive.

* * *

By way of an update to a recent untruthful statement given by Mr James to the Western Mail a few weeks ago, I decided to make a complaint to the council. After all, the public perception of the integrity of our chief executive and Returning Officer combined, is surely very important.

In response, Ms Rees Jones, with her Monitoring Officer hat on, has decided, after three years of involving herself in every aspect of this whole saga, sitting at the chief executive's elbow for six days in court, and smoothing out his unlawful activities at every turn, that this is a private matter so she will not be involving herself in investigating anything.

This is an interesting response given that Mr James freely used the publicly funded council press office to issue his statement not to mention the very public illegal funding of the counterclaim which gave rise to the damages. 'Private' doesn't come into it.

However, as my complaint suggested a breach of the Press and Media Protocol by Mr James, apparently that aspect will, apparently, be looked at by the Corporate Complaints team...based in the chief executive's department.... I trust they will be shocked and appalled that their boss has used council facilities to defame a member of the public..again.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Less important Executive Board Members forced to take 'pay' cut? And other news

Back in November the council's Democratic Services committee rejected a proposal from the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales to cut some Executive Board Members' 'salaries' by around 10%.
The draft proposal was somewhat cancelled out by a recommended increase in the deputy leaders' allowances from £31,250 to £33,000 (we have no less than two deputy leaders, currently Cllrs Pam Palmer (Ind) and Plaid's Dai Jenkins), and the Leader's £48,000 was to stay the same. Those proposals were not rejected of course. Expenses would not be affected.

Unfortunately for our senior councillors, the IRPW, in its final report published last month, chose to stick with its original proposals. This means that Executive Board members, apart from Pam, Dai and Emlyn, will now have to decide who remains on £29,000 per year, and who will drop to £26,100.

The IRPW has also stipulated that allowances to Committee Chairs will also be on two levels depending on their level of self-importance, some will stay at £22,000 but some will drop to a mere £20,000.

The Democratic Services Committee will now have to make recommendations to full council, but whether it will cause upset amongst our senior councillors, who all consider themselves to be very, very important, remains to be seen.

Personally, as Executive Board meetings are now webcast, I think an arm-wrestling contest would be a far more appropriate method of resolving this tricky situation.  But please, definitely not mud wrestling.


Some of the recommendations from the recent Wales Audit Office Assessment are also coming up for attention, and possible rejection, over the next couple of weeks and a few are worth noting.

For matters of governance, the WAO have recommended, amongst other things, that a register of all Delegated Officer Decisions should be published, what a good idea and, it turns out, already a requirement over the Severn Bridge. As is public filming and the publication of spending details. Not so in Wales where every year council budgets go out to consultation without anyone knowing what exactly is being spent, on what, and to whom.

At least with the advance of technology we now have a record of what's said in full council rather than the selective minutes. At the last meeting Councillor Jan Williams mentioned the fact that there was not one mention in the minutes of her demand for evidence, from Meryl Gravell, that local people had scuppered a lottery bid for Parc Howard when she, and Cllr Cill Thomas held evidence to the contrary.

The Chief Executive helpfully intervened to say that as it had not been an official question, they didn't record everything that was said. Not even, it seems, a direct challenge to the truthfulness of statements issued by an Executive Board portfolio holder. Fancy that. Not that the chief executive concerns himself with the truthfulness of his own statements of course.

The WAO also suggest that the council supplies the Audit Committee with all regulatory reports and that it oversees the Corporate Risk register, in fact it's whole remit should be reviewed.
The WAO continue to be concerned about the council's management of grants and have also suggested that it might be a good idea to hold, for the purposes of scrutiny, central registers of tenders and contracts - the scandals over the Supporting People and Coastal grants are testimony to that being a very good idea indeed.

As for the Council's Constitutional Review Working Group set up, you may recall, to mangle the WLGA's 39 Governance recommendations, I have been told that they may meet if any tweaks to the constitution are required in the near future. I have also asked if their agenda will include the final removal of the 'suspended' unlawful libel indemnity clause, but this has not been confirmed...and remains something of a delicate matter for the chief executive I'm sure.

In brief
At the last council meeting, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment was the brief mention that a new tier, and pay grade of senior management was being introduced. I failed to detect any cost assessment or impact on future budgets, or even a mention in the current budget.

At another recent meeting a £100,000 overspend on primary school transport was mentioned, though the news it's unlikely to reach the press office. This, said the relevant officer, was due to the closure of many small schools, "This was an example of a small change having a huge financial impact" A small change? Not for all those local communities, and the financial implications seem to have come as a bit of a shock.