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...

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

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

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 School....to 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 work...how 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 reports...how 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