Friday, 29 July 2016

Ombudsman tells 'brawling councillors' to behave in future - update from 2015

Back in April 2015 the Llanelli Star (article has now gone but I blogged about it here) reported that the police had to be called to a meeting of Llanelli Rural Council after an'altercation' between two councillors on the 8th April 2015.

The ladies concerned, Cllrs Tegwen Devichand (Lab) and Theresa Bowen (Ind) also happen to be Carmarthenshire County Councillors as well as rural Councillors.

At the time, in April 2015, Cllr Devichand was deputy leader, no less, of Labour led Carmarthenshire Council. Cllr Bowen had parted company from her Labour colleagues and had joined Meryl and Pam on the Independent benches.

The police took no further action but one of the ladies reported the other to the Ombudsman for breaching the code of conduct by 'blocking her pathway' and behaving in a 'threatening manner'. The Ombudsman, given the conflicting statements which suggested that both were quite possibly as bad as each other, decided to investigate both councillors on his own initiative and this was concluded last month.

The outcome was that even though the bust-up had occurred on rural council premises, neither had been acting in their 'public capacity' at the time and so the 'respect' and 'bullying' elements of the Code had not been engaged. Presumably, had they come to blows over the re-positioning of a litter bin, it would have been engaged.

Whilst he concluded that they may well have brought the council into disrepute, and warned them both about their future behaviour, it wasn't in the public interest to refer them to the standards board for further action.

In another case looked at by the Ombudsman last month it seems that Carmarthenshire Council are still having trouble apologising - it's always been an unnatural concept for the top brass at County Hall.

Due to the council's failure to repair a central heating system a gentleman went without heat in his home from October 2015 until February 2016. He complained to the council who apologised - 'Carmarthenshire style'. The Ombudsman clearly judged the apology to be inadequate and told them to try again, re-issue a proper apology, and give the chap £280 for his hardship during those winter months.

You may recall the council were rapped for failing to issue a proper apology to the Breckmans following a damning Ombudsman report in 2012, and in the same year were slammed by the Ombudsman for the way they handle complaints.
In February 2015, in another example, the Ombudsman again took them to task over their complaint handling, describing it as "very poor.... defensive and lacked objectivity", it was also 'inadequate and ineffective' .
Nothing changes....

Friday, 22 July 2016

Carmarthenshire Council enforce £190,390 legal costs

Further to the Executive Board decision to pursue me for legal costs, I received an Interim Charging Order today for £190,390 against my home. I have 28 days to object to the Charge being made final. As I understand it, following any objection, and I will object, the matter will be then be decided by a judge, possibly at a court hearing. A hundred and ninety grand...
The Council have transferred these proceedings to Carmarthen.

Council chief executive Mr James already has a Charge on my home in relation to his damages of £30,913 and as I have already said, I have been ordered to attend court next week (on the 29th July - this linked post is now updated) to be questioned on my finances regarding this matter before a judge.

There has been no enforcement, to date, for the costs (£41,000) of Mr James' counterclaim, which was illegally funded.

As for other matters, Dyfed Powys Police are still assessing complaints made against me, and I have not heard anything, as yet, about Mr James' threatened High Court action for Contempt of Court.

Whatever happens, I'll fight to the bitter bloody end.

Further posts, for background, can be found on the sidebar of this blog.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Executive Board Agenda - Questions, budgets, Masterplans and the Guildhall - updated

Update 26th July
After a very lengthy meeting, most of which concerned the changes to Llangennech schools to Welsh medium, the Board voted to accept the council's proposals to be sent out to formal consultation. Each side of the argument will have a further say on the matter and the final decision will eventually be made by full council.

Following the inadvertent release of the Guildhall report it was decided to discuss this in public. The Board decided to buy the building for the sum advised by the district valuer, £225,000. The report, with the other options and implications, should now be published (or re-published) on the agenda.

I've heard that work on the new shower block planned for the Pembrey 'Masterplan' actually started a couple of years ago. Construction was stopped when it emerged there was no planning and no building control, and was stopped completely when the newly purchased boilers mysteriously disappeared...

*  *  *

There's quite a packed agenda for our executive board councillors to nod through next Tuesday. The Member for education, Cllr Gareth Jones (Plaid) will be particularly busy as the raft of public questions, both for and against council plans to change Llangennech schools from bilingual to Welsh medium, deferred from June's Executive Board meeting, (see post here) have reappeared on the agenda and will be put to him.

The deferment was required as Cllr Jones had apparently gone to watch the Euro footie in France. A 'long standing arrangement' which, unfortunately or otherwise, hadn't been conveyed to the twenty-odd folk who turned up at the last meeting.

The answers will have been carefully prepared, particularly as a judicial review challenge has been mentioned by those opposing the plans, and the priority will be to control any potential outbursts, but whatever your take on this whole matter, it is refreshing to see members of the public exercising their democratic rights to speak.

Also on the agenda is a taster of the next budget which won't actually go through until next February so it's early days yet. There's plenty of time to chop and change but as signalled back in February this year, school budgets are in for a hammering. £6 million to be axed in 2017/18, another £6 million in 2018/19 and £3.4m in 2019/20. How this will impact on educational standards remains to be seen but at a rough guess, it won't be positive. Valuable teaching staff will be lost - there is a limit to how much can be saved through 'back office efficiencies'.

In general terms 576 jobs have been lost across the council over the last three years, 374 of them from the bottom rung of the pay scale and exit packages have cost a total of £11.2m. Out of the 374 (which accounts for £2,4m in exit packages) 142 have been compulsory redundancies.

On the subject of education I took a brief look again at the 'Education through Regional Working' website, ERWs being the regional education 'consortia' of officials and councillors, and the relevant body in these parts covers Carms, Pembs, Ceredigion Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Powys. A brief delve into the minutes show a great deal of talking, and, surprisingly, given the topic, several spelling mistakes...I noticed, for example, there were numerous 'observors' at these meetings.

Presumably these regional arrangements were a Welsh Government precursor to council mergers which are now on the back-burner, in the short term anyway, so each authority is still a Local Education Authority. As with any extra tier of government the ERW is a multilayered organisation of bureaucratic expense and its main existence seems to be as a vehicle to dish out the WG education cash to its constituent parts.

Prior to the ERW, this money was paid direct to each LEA but now there's an additional layer of middle men and red tape. It's not cheap either costing over half a million to administer per year, In last years accounts, the figures included a Managing Director on £70k and another unnamed employee on £100k. £221k was also shelled out on consultants.

Another purpose of the ERW is to improve, or at least maintain, educational standards and a network of Challenge Advisers are employed to support and monitor local standards.  This is on top of each councils' own scrutiny committee. The challenge advisers are not employed by the ERW though but by each local authority.

Carmarthenshire is currently advertising for three of them (£55k - £58k pa) though have limited this to internal applicants only. Perhaps this arrangement will provide an opportunity for those senior teaching staff displaced by the council's mammoth education cuts. Personally I'd prefer teachers in the classrooms to 'challenge advisers' with clipboards.

Back to the agenda and what better way of persuading people to forget about dodgy deals, clandestine meetings, hidden agendas, cover-ups and alleged corruption, (see previous posts), than a Masterplan or two.

The future visions for Parc Howard and Pembrey Country Park are reproduced in glorious glossy technicolour graphics. £150k has already been dug out of the reserves for the play area at Parc Howard, much to the surprise of town and county councillors who have been told that the council can't afford to maintain their own local playgrounds so they must take them over, or else...It was an 'exceptional circumstance' apparently. No one begrudges a playground but the rest of the vision appears to be highly dependant on private investment so let's hope things are a little more transparent this time round...

The plans for Pembrey park are even more visionary with the estimated cost put at £1.5m, but unfortunately there's only £80k left this year after some emergency work. Again, 'sympathetic' private investment is required. Again, given the scandals, and the mess over a relatively small catering tender,  the words brewery and p***up spring to mind. See also my previous post.
I suspect, in the long run, the dreams of Mark and Meryl and their Grandmasterplan will be realised... it's just a roundabout way of getting there.

There's a small but quiet hint of what's to come with regards to the Wellness Centre, or Wellness Shed, as Cadno recently dubbed the project with a £25,000 'contribution' to the project manager's salary. So far none of the payments to this project have to be signed off by the council, just Mark and Meryl by the look of it. Exactly how many £millions will be involved remains to be seen..

Finally I must mention the report on the council's prospective purchase of the Carmarthen Guildhall. Obviously this grand old building, the former court, is a central feature of the town and calls have been made for the council to buy it from HM Courts. The report appeared on the agenda for about 20 minutes until someone decided it should be exempt and discussed in private. However,  the deletion wasn't complete and, at the time of writing, it still remains on the full report pack.
I have kept a copy if anyone's interested, and in case it disappears completely.
(Update 17:41 - after 24 hours online, the report has now been removed and is a 'restricted' document)

The decision whether or not to buy the Grade 2* listed building, for £225,000, is up to the Executive Board only, not full council but the cost implications (running costs estimated at over £100k per year), options, potential uses and negotiations should be of general interest. I particularly favour the option to turn part of it into a police station, with bars on the windows to boot, combined with council offices...preferably the chief executive's...

The report adds that HM Courts "claim" (sounds like the council don't believe the courts) to have spent £1m on refurbishments since 2009. It does seem a little incredible and appears to have amounted to little more than a lick of paint, a bit of polyfiller and some rewiring. It sounds like it could actually do with a new roof. The costs could be astronomical.

The disability access is poor and the restrictions from the listing and involvement of CADW could prove problematic as well as lengthy. Various council owned historic artefacts are currently in the building and in danger of damage, these would have to be removed and stored.

But it is certainly a grand old building and a historic centrepiece of the town and, as the report states, HM Courts might go and sell it to someone "unscrupulous" (there's irony there folks) and, more to the point, there might be "public criticism" if they don't accept the valuation and go ahead with the purchase. For those who cherish the Guildhall, even with the potential cost in capital and maintenance, the other option, to hold out until HM Courts, out of desperation, accepts the council's lower offer, might be a gamble too far.

An interesting one to watch and given its inadvertent publication, maybe it'll be put back on the open agenda and considered in public.

Guildhall, Carmarthen

Monday, 11 July 2016

Pembrey Park scandal - where does the buck stop?

Update 13th July at end of this post.

Previous post; Pembrey Park scandal - an update

The council's Audit Committee met on Friday and discussed, amongst other things, the Pembrey Country Park scandal. It wasn't called that of course and appeared on the agenda as the innocently titled 'Coastal facilities'. The Audit Committee is not webcast (it should be) and so filming/recording is banned, however a short report has appeared in the Llanelli Star.

As I have mentioned in my previous post (link above), there is an opposition question from Cllr Jeff Edmunds to Cllr Dole on this very topic scheduled for Wednesday's (13th July) full council meeting, which will be webcast. Worth a watch perhaps although there has been plenty of time to script the response... (Update 13th July below)

The Head of Leisure, Ian Jones, presented the damning report on Friday and appeared to blame the chaotic failures on cutbacks and departmental restructuring. On that basis we can expect similar reports from every other council department. The 'lessons had been learned' line was trotted out and one middle manager has been suspended pending an investigation.

Whatever happens next, the most significant aspect of all this remains the fact that the 'issues', ie possible fraud and blatant breaches of nearly every policy and procedure, were flagged up long ago but were never acted upon, and as the Herald revealed, were actively covered up by senior officers. The internal audit report was commissioned following the retirement of the previous director.

The Star article quotes Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab) who demanded to know who was responsible and said that given that this was one of the worst example of corporate failure he'd seen, the buck stops with the Head of Leisure. Cllr Thomas, being one of our more outspoken councillors, has the dubious honour of being a subject of the Mark James Intelligence Service and have his own file in the presidential suite.

During the time which encompassed many of the 'historic issues', the Country Park was also under the general responsibility of the Director of Regeneration and Leisure, Dave Gilbert OBE, he is now an adviser to the Swansea Bay City Region Board. He was also the deputy chief executive of the council, with all that that might entail...

We know, of course that the buck actually goes higher than a mere Head of Department, or even a Director; as I said, it's the failure to act on earlier warnings, and attempts at cover-up, which is so damning. This was corporate knowledge. and to say that this knowledge didn't go right to the very top is simply laughable. In addition, the entire Pembrey peninsular, including its 'coastal facilities' have been the subject of one of Mark and Meryl's numerous 'Masterplans' which now includes the hiving off of leisure facilities to an arms length trust.

Incidentally this all seems to have happened (along with the pension and libel indemnity scandals) on the watch of Head of Law/Monitoring Officer Linda Rees Jones, who's appointment was made permanent in a curious interpretation of the constitution, ie, hand picked by the chief executive.

Heads tend not to roll in the corporate fortress of county hall, no matter what. From illegally bankrolling lawsuits to tax avoidance pension scams to shortchanging the taxpayer to benefit a private company. From snooping on councillors emails to emasculating the democratic process into an officer-led toxic culture. From threatening the local press to economising with the truth when speaking to them. To name but a few.

The only heads to roll are those belonging to the people who blow the whistle, those that criticise. or those that uncover something nasty in the woodshed...

Update 13th July;

Cllr Dole responded to Cllr Jeff Edmunds' question to full council by saying it would be inappropriate to comment whilst an internal investigation into a member of staff was taking place.

Cllr Edmunds' supplementary question enquired as to the fate of the whistleblower, to whom they should all be grateful, and the current situation regarding their employment. Cllr Dole merely repeated his first response.

Cllr Dole's response was to say as little as possible, a classic council PR exercise in containment....
There was no further discussion. Discussion is possible at the discretion of the Chair but this never happens. For 'Chair' read 'Chief Executive'.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Unison Carmarthenshire campaign against outsourcing social care

Carmarthenshire County Unison branch have launched a campaign against the council's plans to outsource part, or all of social care services by forming a Local Authority Trading Company (LATC).
The union's concerns are outlined in their newsletter below;

(Pic source; Branch Secretary Mark Evans' Facebook page)

Followers of Mrs Angry's Broken Barnet blog will be well aware of the dangers of large scale outsourcing for staff and residents, particularly for those residents who are elderly or vulnerable and, as she says in this post from 2013 "the company is run by a board of unelected and unaccountable members, removing the scrutiny of democratic overview from its operations".
She continues with the warning of introducing a "market economy into an area where it is grossly inappropriate, seeking to make profit out of the needs of our most vulnerable and dependent residents".

In Carmarthenshire the latest buzzwords are 'innovative' or 'alternative' methods of service delivery, which Plaid once condemned (in those far-off days in opposition) as nothing more than back-door privatisation, as I mentioned earlier this year;
'Whilst in opposition last year the Plaid group criticised the Labour leadership for their 'obsession' for 'essentially outsourcing services and reducing democratic oversight'. It seems that the obsession for back-door privatisation was highly contagious'.

Another issue regarding LATCs, trusts and other arms-length arrangements, despite delivering public services, with public money, is that they are exempt from Freedom of Information requests as they are commercial trading companies.

Since being granted the Key to the Presidential Toilet, Cllr Emlyn 'two barns' Dole and the Plaid leadership have embraced the progress to outsource Leisure Services and Affordable Housing, both of which are well on their way to join Cwm Environmental, the existing LATC for waste services. Social care privatisation has already begun with the closure of council run care homes and over 70% of home care services now in the hands of private companies.

With the final push to form a LATC, currently aimed at adult social care, what precious little scrutiny and democratic oversight there was, (there's never been anything resembling accountability), will be lost forever, or until it's too late.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

The Pembrey Park scandal, an update - updated

Later post 11th July here.

Scroll to end of post for update 6th July

Back in March an internal audit report emerged identifying serious issues with the running of Pembrey Country Park and the Millenium Coast. The audit was carried out following the retirement of the previous director and deputy chief executive, Mr. Dave Gilbert. These issues were described as 'historic' and assurances were given that no fraud had been identified.

Calls by councillors to be told exactly what had gone on, and to involve the police and the Wales Audit Office were dismissed by council leader Dole as the height of impertinence, shrugged off, and matters remained in-house.

In April the Herald reported on further allegations including recorded phone calls suggesting a cover-up of the 'issues' by very senior officers, for example, "for f***s sake don't go to the police". The Herald also learned that some documentation had now been passed to the police though not, of course, by the council. It was also rumoured that a senior manager had been suspended from within the department.

Meanwhile, a further report is going to the Audit Committee next week (Fri 8th July) to update them on the 'action plan' and progress made to date. Reassurances are given to the committee, in the form of restructuring, realignments and the creation of more managers, to suggest that all is now in hand.

A little more detail of those 'historic issues' can be read from the report, for example;

"It was not possible to place an assurance that all income due has been collected, recorded, banked, monitored and accurately reflected in the Authority’s accounts."

To you and me this means quite simply that money went missing.

"It is not possible to place an assurance that all assets are fully accounted for."

So not only did money go missing but so did equipment.

And "Employee Declaration of Interests are not being completed when it would be appropriate to do so" suggests a very smelly can of worms.

There was a failure to follow Financial Procedure Rules, Contract Procedure Rules, Quotation Procedure Rules, Transport & Engineering Unit Policy, Health & Safety, Building Regulations, Control of Vibration at Work Regulations and Human Resource Policies.

There were also issues with public liability insurance cover, and also the security and safety of fuel storage.

All in all a time bomb waiting to happen. The problem for the council is not what actually happened, maybe the police will make their own enquiries (if their time is not wasted elsewhere), nor future measures to rectify the mess, but who knew what was going on, and for how long.

As I have said before, even I have been aware of serious allegations for over two years and the information which has emerged inside and outside the confines of County Hall makes it very apparent that the knowledge, and alleged cover-up, went right to the very top.

Update 6th July

Labour group leader Cllr Jeff Edmunds has tabled a question (see below) to Council leader Emlyn Dole for next Wednesday's full council meeting. Expect the usual flannel by way of a response so let's hope Cllr Edmunds can articulate a decent supplementary question.

“An article in the Llanelli Herald on the 20th May 2016 made extremely serious allegations against this council. The front page headline of the report was ' COUNCIL SCANDAL AT PEMBREY PARK' and this article alleged the 'fixing' of the contract to provide catering facilities at the park and conspiring the termination of employment of certain staff member(s) amongst other things. 
These are extremely distressing and alarming accusations of possible corruption in the authority and my question to The Leader of Council is:- 
What is the council's current situation surrounding these allegations and what are we doing about it?”.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Enforcement of damages - questions in court - updated

Update 29th July - The hearing

Well, I'm not sure what that exercise set out to achieve, other than another means to apply unnecessary pressure.

Mr James' solicitors had drafted numerous reasons why it was imperative I was questioned before a judge, rather than the usual court officer. I've no idea why. In the event I basically swore on oath that I have no money, something Mr James has been very aware of for three years. His solicitor read from a standard form of questions which, I'm guessing, were complied at some point in the mid-1980s. Aside from the usual financial basics, I was asked, for instance, if I had a hi-fi, a video player or a camcorder.

I made a token offer of £1 per week. Not quite sure how that's going to go down. Mr James has rejected all previous offers (despite trying to claim I had not made any) and I have told him repeatedly I have no money. He already has a Charge on my home.

*  *  *

The latest development in the recent flurry of legal activity hovering over Caebrwyn concerns the damages awarded to the chief executive, Mr James, following his counterclaim for libel. This now stands at over £30,000.

An 'Order to attend court for questioning', regarding my finances, was served on Friday evening. The court in question is in Carmarthen, having been transferred from London due, according to the paperwork, to my previous assertions of limited means...

The hearing is on the 29th July and I will be questioned under oath and as, apparently, there are 'exceptional circumstance' it will be before a judge.

Mr James currently has a Restriction on my home and this latest move appears to follow the unsuccessful attendance of High Court bailiffs a few months back.
Mr James has been aware of my financial situation for three years.

As I have said before, I disagree with the judge's findings against me, from the libel, case in their entirety and my position has never changed.
Also, I probably don't need to remind anyone that the counterclaim was unlawfully funded.

For the 'recent flurry' of ongoing legal activity, including involvement of the police which began three months ago...and the threat of Contempt of Court proceedings, please see here, here and here. I have yet to hear about any of that.

I will be seeking (yet more) legal advice and for reasons which I hope are obvious, I will not be publishing comments on this blog post.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Constitutional contortions from County Hall

Back in April 2015 I mentioned the fact that the word 'Acting' had recently vanished from the job title of the Council's Head of Law and Monitoring Officer, Ms Linda Rees Jones. Ms Rees Jones had been 'acting' since the retirement of the previous postholder in the summer of 2011 and was, of course a key player in the libel indemnity and pensions scandals.

As I pointed out in that 2015 blogpost, the Council's Constitution, Part 4 (8) Officer Employment Procedure Rules, states that if the position is to be permanent, and whether or not the candidates are external or not, the appointment must be made by 'Appointment Committee B'.

Finding no trace of any relevant minutes from 'Appointment Committee B' or any other letter of the alphabet there was some speculation that the seamless move from acting to permanent was based on the acquisition of sufficient Mark James Loyalty Card points.

The mystery continued and I felt sure, given the terms of the Constitution, that I must have overlooked some council minutes somewhere that showed the involvement of councillors in the permanent appointment, particularly as the role of Monitoring Officer is a statutory post.
Last month I made a Freedom of Information request for any relevant minutes.

I received the response on Friday, and well...Who knew?

Here's the, erm, explanation;

Part 3(8) of the Constitution is the 'Scheme of Delegation' section which confers decision making powers to senior officers, including the chief executive.

The section contains a rather wide ranging clause authorising senior officers 'to make arrangements for the proper administration of the functions falling within their responsibility' on the proviso that it fits in with legislation, council policy etc or at least can be made to look that way. (This section also happens to contain the 'suspended' unlawful libel indemnity clauses, but that, of course, is another story).

Anyway, the FOI response informs me that, under this catch-all clause, a delegated officer decision was made (undoubtedly by the chief executive), via the 'Organisational Change Policy'.
So, in fact, Part 4(8) and Appointment Committee B were by-passed completely.

The 'Organisational Change Policy' was approved in 2013 in a single Executive Board Member meeting, held behind closed doors and in the pre-WLGA Governance Review days when the agenda for these meetings were not published until well after the event and did not include any published documents.

Within this policy, I am told, is the stipulation that 'employees who have been seconded for more than 2 years within a post may be eligible to be confirmed in post'. (my underline)

So there you have it! Nothing's ever quite as it seems when it comes to County Hall's 'Rule book' and it can be 'adapted', and open doors, even back ones, according to the whim of this officer-led council perhaps I was a little closer to the truth the first time...

Recently, the Wales Audit Office recommended that, like other councils, and for the purpose of transparency and scrutiny, Carmarthenshire council publishes a register of delegated decisions by individual officers. Sounds like a very good idea to me...

The Freedom of Information request and response can be seen here.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

School questions...and a new low for Meryl

Carmarthenshire Council's recent foray into public question time at meetings has, to put it politely, been a bit hit and miss. Until a year or so ago it was unheard of for the great unwashed to enter the sanctity of the Chamber, let alone have the whole thing broadcast to the nation. Yesterday's meeting of the Executive Board was no exception.

The agenda included a raft of questions concerning the council's proposal to change the language category of Llangennech schools to Welsh medium. Members of the public from both sides of the argument were present. The issues have been well publicised in the local press and, it has been suggested, have become somewhat politicised and locally divisive. For the record, I'm taking no sides with this one, merely commenting on the process.

The questions, which are all on the agenda as they have to be submitted well in advance, were all addressed of course to the executive board member for education, Cllr Gareth Jones (Plaid).

The meeting started with the announcement that Cllr Jones was not there.

According to the Chair, Cllr Dole, this absence had been arranged some time ago. It's not clear when the questioners were told but they had taken time off work to attend and were given to understand (they'd checked the constitution) they would be able to ask the all important supplementary question.

However, it just so happened that the Director of Education, Mr Rob Sully was present with pre-prepared responses and as the executive board councillor was absent, the Chair decided that he would not subject the Director to any supplementary questions from the public.

The Chair has this discretion of course and given the strength of feeling, and the political aspect, perhaps it was fair enough (mind you, on a salary of £135k per annum you'd think the Director would be up to batting around a few questions from the hoi polloi).

This arrangement, prompted by the absence of the councillor, gave casual observer the impression of the usual stage-management.

Eventually, after the usual dithering about, and ever-conscious of the webcams and press interest, it was decided that the only option was to postpone the questions until Cllr Jones could be there to respond (and to respond to supplementary questions), probably next month.

It was also agreed that those who wished to ask questions there and then could, but in the event it was only those who agreed with the council's plans who chose to do so.

In light of this, the actual decision to change the language status of the school also had to be deferred until the next meeting.

As I have said, I take no sides but whatever your view of the subject matter, if this was an attempt by County Hall to prevent proper public engagement, it failed miserably and the whole exercise is now due to be repeated in a few weeks time.

Aside from the revised email policy, see here, which was nodded through without so much as a whisper, another item worth mentioning from the meeting was the total agreement by all present, councillors and chief executive included, that the National Procurement Service set up by Welsh Government was a total disaster as it took away the ability of local authorities to make their own procurement arrangements and support local businesses.

I was left a little confused, forgive me if I'm wrong but didn't the council just decide against awarding the tender for catering at Pembrey Park to a local company which had run it for five years, in favour of a company from Bradford? Whilst on the subject of Country Parks wasn't one of the serious allegations currently being (internally) investigated a 'failure to comply with the council's procurement procedures'?

Lastly, I must mention the remarks made by Cllr Meryl Gravell who, towards the end of the meeting, decided to offer her condolences and comment on the awful murder of Jo Cox MP.

Meryl remarked that 'lots' of councillors had to put up with 'lots of nonsense' from the 'press and blogs', 'lots of lies were, and are still being said'.

What was she implying? Was she suggesting that this death of an MP, in all its appalling circumstances, was somehow comparable to valid criticism, and calls for transparency, levelled at the council by the press and blogs?
It was a disgraceful cheap shot to infer that facts, opinions and critical comments on blogs or in the press in Carmarthenshire should be mentioned in the same breath as the appalling events last week.

If Jo Cox MP epitomised democracy, tolerance and justice, then Ms Gravell and her chums, sit squarely at the other end of the scale. 

Monday, 13 June 2016

Cadno's special case - This week's Herald

Readers of the Carmarthenshire and Llanelli Heralds will be familiar with columnist Cadno's excellent turn of phrase, and this week's piece was no exception;

Cadno’s special case

May it please the Court: 
I appear on behalf of the Defence in this matter. My learned friend Mr Polecat appears for the Claimant, Mr Fatcat, and he is in turn instructed by Messrs Rook and Weasel. 
Mr Fatcat’s claim is as follows: he alleges that my client has not only grossly impugned his character occasioning a serious libel, but, furthermore, has continued to point out that – in the manner of the Emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved tale – not only has no clothes but glories in his nakedness. 
The libel case was decided by Mr Justice Owl-Botherer, who concluded that Mr Fatcat had been the subject of a libel made by my client and was eligible for the receipt of damages and costs set at a level that any sane person would have known was both unaffordable and irrecoverable. Needless to say, Mr Fatcat has taken steps to enforce the judgement in his favour. 
It is, however, now alleged by Mr Fatcat that, in breach of undertakings given previously to the Court, my client has published certain information which places her in contempt of Court. 
Since the alleged breach has taken place recently, let us examine what that breach might be. 
The Herald reported and was able to verify earlier this year that when Mr Fatcat said that offers to settle my client’s liability to him had not been made, he was in fact being economical with the truth. 
Indeed, they were able to publish evidence that showed that Mr Fatcat’s words – given on the record to several news outlets without qualification – were not only untrue but untrue with knobs on. 
Offers to settle had been made. It matters not one jot whether those offers were acceptable to Mr Fatcat or not, contrary to the bald assertions either made by him or made on his behalf, they did exist. 
Now, even if it was the case that the disclosure of the offers to settle the liability breached an undertaking to the Court, I would remind the Court that they who come to equity must do so with clean hands. 
If exposing Mr Fatcat’s calumny regarding the offers made to settle my client’s liability to him breached an undertaking of the Court, I would suggest such a breach was rendered inevitable and in the interests of natural justice by the conduct of Mr Fatcat. 
So, let us look at a further possibility. 
Was the existence of offers to settle the alleged libel case made by Mr Fatcat before his employers decided to bankroll his countersuit against my client a breach of an undertaking given to the Court? 
This is far more likely. 
But even if that disclosure represented a breach of such an undertaking, let us consider the position. It is trite law that inter parties communications usually attract privilege, particularly where and when they relate to offers to settle made both pre-action and during litigation’s course. However, that there is an intrinsic public interest in the existence of the costs indemnity and the circumstances that gave rise to it being granted is demonstrated by the decision of the Wales Audit Office to issue a report in the Public Interest determining that Mr Fatcat’s employer’s grant of such a costs indemnity was unlawful. 
Mr Fatcat’s assistant, the Right Reverend Vole, has recently appeared on the TV – yes, M’lud, a popular device of televisual entertainment akin to a magic lantern – to say that the WAO were very naughty indeed in ruling Mr Fatcat’s employer’s actions unlawful. It remains a fact, however, that the Right-on Reverend Vole held precisely the reverse view in opposition. An impartial observer might conclude, M’Lud, that the Right Reverend’s protestant protestations should be taken with a massive pinch of salt. Certainly, M’Lud, that is what the Head of the WAO decided when he bashed that benighted bishop in print. 
Yes M’Lud, ‘naked opportunism’ is such an ugly phrase. 
Moreover, Mr Fatcat’s employer has never once challenged the decision of the WAO or tested it in Court. And that decision, M’lud, cannot be because they are afraid of incurring further costs in Mr Fatcat’s favour at cost to the public. No, M’Lud, they have not challenged it in case they lose. For if they lose, rather than sulkily pretend the ruling did not exist, then Mr Fatcat’s chums across the length and breadth of the land would curse him softly before they went to sleep each night. 
So, it appears as though the Court is in fact being asked to pop a genie back in a bottle. 
The truth about Mr Fatcat’s search to settle the action in my client’s favour is out there, as is the truth about the Right Reverend Vole’s moral outrage both in opposition and in power. 
Both are matters plainly in the public interest. Mr Fatcat’s determination to fight this case to the ends of the earth is powered by the inability of his employers to say ‘no’ to him or to stop spending money on his behalf. 
Yes, M’Lud, there is indeed an investigation ongoing by Dyfed Powys Police. That allegation is that by publishing material about Mr Fatcat, for example the existence of the offers to settle his claim against her, the existence of offers to settle, trying to establish precisely what Mr Fatcat’s employers think they are doing with public money, that this is in some way harassing Mr Fatcat. 
Yes M’Lud, you might well ask how publishing material in the public interest can harass Mr Fatcat. He cannot feel aggrieved at having his erroneous memory as to the existence of those offers to settle his claim being corrected; neither can he be aggrieved that the existence of offers he made to settle the action were drawn to the attention of the Right Reverend Vole and his Church of Latter Day Saints when they would otherwise have been unaware of their existence; neither can he be aggrieved at the suggestion that scarce public resources would be better expended elsewhere. 
Yes, M’Lud, I entirely agree.
‘What are these people doing with public money?’
I am grateful to the Court for that indication.
Yes M’Lud: it really is too good for them.
 From the Carmarthenshire and Llanelli Heralds, republished with kind permission

Cadno, the fox

Thursday, 9 June 2016

June meeting

Given my current circumstances I was particularly aware yesterday that it was five years to the day since the #daftarrest incident at County Hall. Quite a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then but at least we can now watch proceedings from the comfort of home rather than endure the aroma of boiled cabbage and political repression. You can, of course go along and film a meeting now, as long as it is also being webcast of course, in that control freakery kind of way.

One thing that raised eyebrows across the nation in the early days of webcasting was the call to 'be upstanding' not only for the entry of the Chair and vice-Chair, which you might expect, but also for 'the chief executive', this has now been replaced with the less embarrassing call just to 'be upstanding', without the mention of titles.
The prayer, as ever, fell on deaf ears as those taking part hoped to be blessed with tolerance and wisdom.

The new Chair, Cllr Eryl Morgan, (it was Labour's turn this year, they take it in turns, and it works on loyalty points and obedience), seems a little mystified about the whole business but fortunately the chief executive will always be on hand to guide him through every step of the way. This will be even more useful should anything controversial crop up of course, there will be no bruised shins for Cllr Morgan and we know who will be in control.

The Chair and chief executive went through the usual blurb about webcasting and fire drills (if there's a fire any intrepid members of the public in the gallery must stay where they are and wait to be rescued) and as, apparently, there were no Chair's Announcements, the meeting moved on.

Next up was a 200 signature petition for the council to make safe and do something about an 'Ugly building on Penygroes Square' either through compulsory purchase or legal action against the owner. The petition was presented, by Cllr Sian Thomas (Plaid), on behalf of a member of the public, to Cllr Jim 'dog dirt' Jones (Ind) the executive board member for all things environmental and, it seems, ugly buildings. As Cllr Bill Thomas rose to speak in support, a reminder was given that no discussion was allowed, good grief no.

A petition is handed over in the crucible of democracy...
While I'm on the subject of petitions you may remember that one of the recommendations of the WLGA governance review was for the council to have a dedicated online petition facility on its website within three months. That was over eighteen months ago and there's still no sign of it.

But back to the meeting and it was at this point that a councillor enquired whether they were going to pay tribute to a former councillor who had recently passed away. Oops said the Chair, er, there were some Announcements and rummaged through his script and reeled them off. Oh dear.

Next up was the Wales Audit Office Annual Improvement Report which, believe it or not, is within the remit of Cllr Pam Palmer. She waffled on about improved governance and public satisfaction and generally how good they all were, she managed to stop short of recommending a pay rise for herself.

Cllr Palmer and the rest of the Stepford Wives
There was a WAO recommendation that scrutiny needed improving, indeed, there was not one Councillor Question at the meeting. With committee reports now consigned to the end and just for 'noting', the plan was for councillors to place formal questions on full council agendas having read these reports, unfortunately, for whatever reason, hardly any scrutiny minutes have been published since early March and when they do eventually appear, whatever was discussed will be lost in the mists of time.

Once again the opportunity arose for the chief executive to criticise the WAO, a body he holds nearly as dear as he does bloggers, and the last spat with the organisation must have made things worse. Damn their meddling auditing ways. Unable, under polite circumstances and the dratted webcams to say what he really thought, his comments had to be confined to challenging the WAO to find anyone else who did things better than Carmarthenshire Council...

Much was made of the need for affordable housing which was also a feature of the WAO report and Cllr Lemon pointed out that a recent planning application, by the council itself, for six homes only included 20% affordable, why weren't they all affordable? A missed opportunity surely? Cllr Linda Evans, the Plaid executive board member for housing reminded everyone of her recently announced Affordable Homes 'Journey' and how it would 'deliver', well, sometime soon anyway.

With a light agenda the meeting moved on to the approval of executive board meeting reports which had included several exempt items. Questions were asked about the botanical gardens and how the Welsh Government Task and Finish Group, chaired by Meryl, would make a difference to the garden's struggling finances. Meryl was on hand to remind everyone of her importance and to say that wonderful ideas were currently being incubated. No one was told what these might actually be.

Cllr Caiach enquired about the 'wellness centre' and wondered when full council would be treated to a presentation from the 'partners' as the executive board had enjoyed, behind closed doors? And, crucially, how much money were they actually going to fork out for this project?

Meryl, again an important mover and shaker in the whole project, announced that this wouldn't be quite the right thing at the moment, and ignored the question about the cash. They were, however, most fortunate to have the private sector so involved...hmm. Council (and the taxpayers) shouldn't worry their pretty heads with the details, this project would TRANSFORM Llanelli and indeed Carmarthenshire!

Cllr Meryl Gravell...our Wellness guru
So with another Meryl and Mark vanity project looming ominously on the horizon the meeting drew to a close. All that was left was to pay tribute to various officers for a series of successful dismissals, a very difficult business, said the chief executive. These seemed to relate to earlier reports of alleged misdemeanours in the refuse collection department, data protection laws prohibiting the release of details.
Sadly there were still no dismissals to announce from within the Presidential Suite...

Oh, and just in case you don't peruse the Public Notices section of the council website on a regular basis (surely everyone does?) the annual statutory public inspection of the council's accounts runs from the 5th July until the 1st August. You are legally entitled, by appointment, to pop along and inspect the books if you so desire. I went once, quite some time ago.

(webcast here)

12th June; For more on the 'Wellness centre' mysteries read Cneifiwr's latest blogpost;
Merylmania and the Return of the Undead

Saturday, 4 June 2016

The police 'investigation' continues...

July 15th; Following my own enquiries with the police commissioner's office I've been informed that the police are still carrying out the investigative assessment of the complaints, so this is still ongoing.

*  *  *

As eight weeks have now passed since I was informed by the chief executive's solicitors that he had reported me to the police, and as I have heard nothing since my enquiries with the police three weeks ago, I am understandably concerned and so asked them for a further update.

Clearly I am not really supposed to do this as I am not supposed to know that I am under investigation and the officer repeated his disquiet about 'the council' having told me.

Anyway, I do know, and although the officer in charge was tight-lipped I was informed that the matter is still ongoing. The police are again waiting for more 'documents' from 'the council'. Or at least that was what I was told.

This time I was told that the complaint relates to the 'ongoing' civil court action. This seems bizarre, was Mr James' (or 'the council's') original complaint too feeble for the police to take any action, so they're asking him to 'beef it up'? Or is Mr James himself drawing out the whole thing, and misusing the police, in a purely vexatious attempt to bolster his threatened High Court proceedings to his advantage?

Is the complaint so intertwined with the civil case that it is inseparable and is in fact a civil matter, not a police matter? Someone is having difficulties with this somewhere and it remains to be seen whether it will go anywhere.

As I have said, all this relates to the blog and I will, if I have to, vigorously defend all allegations, in a criminal or civil court, or both if it becomes necessary.

One other point I'd like to mention is that back in 2014, when Mr James went on gardening leave during the criminal investigation into the pension and libel indemnity scandals, Dyfed Powys Police decided that as they had a 'close working relationship' it would be proper to hand the investigation over to an outside force. Does that also apply in this case? How exactly does that 'close working relationship' come into play in this case? (Update 8th June; I understand questions have been put to Dyfed Powys Police regarding this point)

Incidentally, I am aware that six weeks ago this blog (three years worth of it) was printed out from a council computer, during working hours, clearly in relation to all this and not for a little light reading. So I hope the council don't try saying that this is a private matter as yet again council facilities and scarce resources are being deployed for highly questionable purposes.

As soon as I have any more information, it will be on the blog. 

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Email snooping...policy 'amended', three years later - updated

Update 14th June; In the final draft of the email protocol which is before the Exec Board on Monday June 20th the authorisation for tracking councillors emails has been extended to include 'and/or the chief executive', so in fact the monitoring officer can be by-passed completely. What possessed the Scrutiny committee to suggest this is beyond me. I think we're back to square one.


Readers may recall that back in 2013 it transpired that Cllr Caiach's emails had been snooped upon by the chief executive. The incident had occurred in 2011 and related to the libel case, Cllr Caiach then went on to act as a witness against Mr James and the council during the trial.
She was unaware that her emails had been tracked until mid-2013.

It was never established if this snooping was habitual and/or ranged further afield. Concerns from opposition councillors were raised in full council in 2013, but, true to form, these were swiftly and sourly silenced with the chief executive claiming that the 'snoop' had been on the order of the High Court, this was entirely wrong and highly misleading. After successfully kicking the subject into the long grass, it resurfaced at a scrutiny meeting in March 2014.

The 'review of the email usage and monitoring policy' found even longer grass this time and languished in the meadow for over two years.
The 'amended' policy finally reappears on the agenda for next week's Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee.

Much of the policy is standard stuff but a section has now been added which states that if a councillor's email is to be snooped, tracked or monitored in some way, presumably covertly, any request must be 'signed off' by the Monitoring Officer who is then supposed to 'inform' the Standards Committee.

In an ideal world, and for future generations, this may provide some sort of balance against abuse, but at the moment, with the toxic culture of Carmarthenshire Council's top brass alive and well, it's not worth the paper it's written on.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

The Wellness Project (again), and other news

As I mentioned a while back, far from becoming open and transparent our best council in Wales appears to be retreating into secrecy like never before, see Exempt reports - flourishing in County Hall. Last week's Executive Board meeting considered two exempt reports, one of which considered the 'very, very exciting' Wellness and Life Science Village project for Delta Lakes, Llanelli.

This project, which is supposed to include a new leisure centre somewhere amongst the private clinics, hotel, conferencing and 'high spec business suites' is led by the council in conjunction with the Welsh Government, and the health board and university 'ARCH' Board, upon which Meryl conveniently sits - numerous jargon filled press releases can be found on google.

As the chief executive said a few months ago, none of the plans, costs nor details have to go before council so it was with kind benevolence that the exempt report appeared before the executive board muppets last week. This is in case the whole thing go pear shaped and the executive board can then be blamed for wielding their 'democratic' rubber stamp.

The minutes for this report are unusually lengthy, a press release in itself in fact. It seems that along with presentations from Swansea University and project managers ARUP, representatives from Kent Neurosciences Ltd also addressed the Board. Although the directors are professionals in the field, this is still a private company, based in Kent, and I was unable to find a website. The company, which due to its size, is exempt under company law from having to provide audited accounts, had approached the council and were seeking an 'exclusivity agreement' with the council which, essentially means that the council agree to deal solely with KNS Ltd.

The representatives then left the meeting and it seems that the stage management continued and Board were further encouraged to sign on the dotted line, undoubtedly by Mark "it won't cost the taxpayers a penny" James.

The council have already earmarked over £6m towards the leisure centre but it is very likely that the total commitment will be far greater, and clearly includes the land itself.

As a council led project, that commitment appears to have already been made, and private partners selected with no proper democratic involvement or a shred of scrutiny.
What the strain on the local NHS budget will be is anyone's guess.

As I said here, Wellness Centre and other news, warning bells should be ringing as this has all the same hallmarks as those other 'pioneering' projects, the Parc Y Scarlets stadium and, let's not forget, the PRSA stadium in Boston. All of which, thanks to the head of the 'Sicilian cartel', which moved itself from Boston to Carmarthenshire, has cost the taxpayers a bloody fortune.

One of the auditors' findings in Boston was that there had been no proper reference to councillors when the initial decisions were taken by Mr James. A criticism in Carmarthenshire was that the financial viability projections for the stadium had been based on thin air and spin.
Let's not let that happen again.

(Update 10th June: Interesting article in this week's Carmarthenshire Herald by Pat Racher relating to KNS and linked companies, the story is on her blog here; Loss-making private hospital link to planned Llanelli Wellness Centre)

The other exempt item on the agenda was 'National Botanic Garden of Wales Task and Finish Group'. This turned out to be a Welsh Government 'Board of experts' set up to formulate an action plan for the gardens.

The garden, which is in Carmarthenshire, has struggled financially since it's inception and, as directors have come and gone, arguments have rumbled on as to whether it should be run on a scientific or a more commercial basis. Council funding has now decreased to £30,000 a year but this was decided during the tenure of the previous director, Dr Rosie Plummer. She clearly didn't press the right buttons in County Hall and this became evident with comments (scroll down) made after her departure.

The extreme secrecy around the report is a bit of a mystery as it seems that following an invitation from the Welsh Government, Meryl was to be appointed as Chair of the Task and Finish group and this required approval from her senior colleagues.
I wouldn't trust Meryl to manage the future of a small window box, never mind a National Garden. Or a chair.

Also featuring at last week's meeting was a sour little grumble about the Wales Audit Office. Clearly miffed over his recent spat with the organisation the chief executive joined in the mutual moan to complain that despite requests for constructive advice where the authority had been found to have 'weaknesses', this had been ignored.

The message that came across was that as they are paying the WAO a substantial amount in fees, what were they doing criticising the best council in Wales? The Chief executive wondered whether anyone else did any better than the council with "some of the financial things".

By "some of the financial things" I presume he's excluding his unlawful payments, questionable grants, the Coastal Scheme scandal, the Supporting People grant failures, peculiar payments to the Scarlets, 'irregularities' at the Country Parks, etc etc.

The could always ditch the Wales Audit Office of course and appoint their own auditors who would appreciate the levels of creative accounting to which the council attain.

Lastly, in what is becoming an annual occurrence, I made enquiries with Ms Rees Jones, head of legal, when (or if) the suspended unlawful indemnity clause would finally be removed from the constitution.

You may recall, that after the WLGA identified the toxic culture in County Hall, a cross-party group was set up to mangle the findings. This group was to meet periodically to consider changes to the constitution, but I was informed that the group has not met since the final mangle last May (2015) and, anyway, Ms Rees Jones does not consider the clause to be unlawful, and neither, obviously, does her boss and beneficiary of the illegal clause, despite the 'legal position' being 'clarified' long ago.
Then again you may also recall that internal legal advice was once described as "cavalier at best, and incompetent at worst".

So, unlike other clauses and paragraphs which come and go, this one, although currently impotent, will probably stay for the foreseeable future, a small but very hot potato continuing to burn a ridiculous hole in the constitution.

Monday, 23 May 2016

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

Later post 4th July; Pembrey Park scandal, an update

Update 13th June; The Herald article is now online;
Senior officers covered up scandal in Pembrey

*  *  *  *

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

July 15th - Informed by the police commissioner's office that the police are still carrying out the investigative assessment of the complaints, so this is still ongoing.

Please refer to my earlier post from April 15th; Caebrwyn under fire
(Later post, June 4th; The police 'investigation' continues... )

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..