Thursday, 30 April 2015

Out of time..

Back in February, following speculation that the aborted severance application made by the chief executive may have incurred some legal expenditure, I made the following Freedom of Information request;

"I am requesting detailed costs breakdowns, preferably invoices, for external legal advice for the following;

1. Any employment issues regarding the Chief Executive of the council from October 2013 to date. Please include any costs incurred prior and during the police investigation early in 2014 and also the Chief Executive's application for severance which he has now withdrawn.
If any costs were incurred, please identify the legal firms involved.

2. Detailed invoices from Mr Tim Kerr QC and also Slater and Gordon Solicitors (Formerly Russell Jones and Walker)"

The second part of the request concerns the legal advice and representation relating to the Wales Audit Office reports and also the defamation case.

The twenty day legal limit for a response passed over six weeks ago.

Is it a particularly difficult, or time consuming request to answer? I don't think so, especially as nearly a month ago, on the 2nd April, the FOI officer told me he was "in the process of establishing whether the information I have been provided with is complete and will revert to you as soon as possible".

As you can see from the What Do They Know site, and as we now enter the month of May, my recent requests for updates have been simply ignored.

At something of a loss to know what to do and somewhat reluctantly, I've now gone to the Information Commissioner as the council has failed to respond without reasonable explanation. Whether this will have any effect remains to be seen.

I'll let you know.

Update 2.10pm; Coincidentally, and sfter the lengthy silence, I have just received an email update apologising for the "continuing delay in responding to your request, which is continuing to receive attention"
I continue to wait.

Third Sector muddle and culture changes

As part of the council's efficiency savings a non-negotiable £1m is to be sliced off funding to the third sector, ie voluntary groups, charities and the like. This process started roughly a year ago and the current status of the 'Review' is on the policy and resources scrutiny agenda for today (Friday).

What has transpired through this review is that, with roughly £20m per annum going to the third sector, the whole system is in a muddle. No one seems to know who's getting what, there's no centralised control and declared departmental spending is not equating with the cash received by organisations. Good grief.

Numerous organisations are using 'aliases', or to put it another way, applications or contracts are under different names, duplicate funding is suspected and contracts are just being rolled over with no checks or balances. What is apparent from this unusually frank report as that this unseemly muddle has been going on for years.

The change of culture which is supposed to be on the horizon shouldn't just extend to openness and transparency; a similar lack of control and unknown spending was unearthed when this committee requested details of external consultants commissioned by various departments, including legal advice, and it took over a year to cobble together the figures.

Carmarthenshire's Planning Services are another area which has been crying out for a 'review' for many years.

With the current Head of Planning, Mr Eifion Bowen retiring in September, the council's advert for a replacement states that .'Above everything, we will be looking for the right person to strengthen the department’s new culture..' Let's hope this refers to a new culture of consistency and fairness across the board and is not just more meaningless waffle from our 'vibrant and forward thinking local authority'. (Dear me, I think the ad breaches the trades description act).

To illustrate this point some of you may have read about the long running Breckman case*, covered here and more recently over on Cneifiwr's blog here and here, and I'll leave you with an extract from a 2008 email from a council solicitor (now retired) to the head of planning following a subject access request by Mrs Breckman which, in one sentence, still sums up the current culture, across the council, very well;

'..the danger with full disclosure is that there are several potentially embarrassing internal emails which could be used by Mrs Breckman and the media if they were to be disclosed'

In the Breckman case, the council, in the words of the planning inspector, 'turned a blind eye' to developments next door, for ten years, and at last week's planning meeting, in a separate case, the council retrospectively approved two large steel sheds in another part of the county. Against this, I am aware of another couple who have been taken to court twice for failing to remove a small portable field shelter for a couple of horses.

Even more recently is the matter of the Grillo site in Burry Port which, (again, please see Cneifiwr's post) was the subject of call-in requests. Last week's planning committee resembled something of a lynch mob as the identities of those who had put the decision on hold through the call-in requests seemed of greater interest than the real reasons why this massive development might have needed a much closer look.
Aside from the serious environmental concerns, it was not apparent at the meeting, nor presumably to the relevant Town Council, that with the agreement of the county council, the developers had reduced the S106 community contributions substantially....

*Update 4th May;
Cneifiwr provides an update today on the ongoing battle faced by the Breckmans. The chief executive has refused, on behalf of the council, to pay them the £1000 compensation due to the fact that the'privacy board' placed in front of Mrs Breckmans windows was eventually removed. As Mr James well knew, this was immediately replaced by a large curtain-sided lorry.

Members and Minutes

Somewhat inspired, I have to say, by a recent post from Pembs councillor and blogger, Old Grumpy, 'Name-calling', I'm now wondering why Members in Carmarthenshire aren't named in the minutes of meetings when, and if, they make a contribution.

Currently, only those who pose a question, or put forward a motion at full council only are named along with the member who is supposed to respond. It appears however that the situation is not unique to Carmarthenshire.

Carmarthenshire's Constitution is quite clear, the minutes will be written "without attributing views or opinions to any members by name".

In fact, the minutes usually refer to members only obliquely, for example "In response to a question...Officer XYZ informed the committee...".

Unless every meeting is going to be webcast or recorded, it might be interesting for residents to actually read the views of their own councillor on important issues.

Although minutes are not supposed to be a verbatim record, Carmarthenshire's have been deliberately 'lean' and on occasion, biased and economical with the truth. The WLGA Governance review recognised the failings and recommended, albeit politely, that the council should 'review its approach to producing minutes of meetings' although fell short of a proposal to identify speakers.

I can see no reason at all why members who contribute to a debate cannot be named in the minutes. Pembrokeshire's officers couldn't come up with a valid reason either it seems and were forced to compromise and propose a three month pilot. Following which, any 'administrative implications' which arose would be considered. They appeared vague as to what those 'implications' could possibly be...
Although the more vocal members might welcome their names and comments being recorded for posterity, as Old Grumpy suggests, such a move would expose the Trappists in the ranks who rarely, if ever, speak up for their constituents or county.

He also mentions the fact that this matter has been rumbling along since March 2013...and if you think Pembrokeshire Council is skilled at kicking things into the long've seen nothing until you come to Carmarthenshire....

Still, with Carmarthenshire's stated aim of becoming the 'most open and transparent council in Wales' you never know....

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Credit cards and hotel bills

Unlike England, and a couple of local authorities in Wales, Carmarthenshire Council doesn't believe in publishing any spending details. Extracting such information is painful to say the least. If any is released, begrudgingly, under the Freedom of Information Act, it usually lacks sufficient information to be of much use to any budding 'armchair auditors'.

However, back in 2011 I asked Carmarthenshire Council for their credit card spending details. I was told there was one corporate card and the information was released in a fairly detailed format; I blogged about it here.

Another response has recently been forwarded on to me, although it was not my request. The information covers 2012 to early in 2013 and consists of Barclaycard statements so the details are limited. Nevertheless it is interesting and in this period there were three officers each holding a credit card.

As I said back in 2011, a corporate credit card, or three, can be a cost effective way of making quick and urgent purchases and, as long as everything is above board, and for council use, there shouldn't be a problem. Looking at these figures, which vary from between £7,000 to £17,000 per month, a considerable amount relates to rail travel and hotel bookings, the total for the period is a shade under £140,000.

We must assume that the books, gifts and tickets for Oakwood park, Alton Towers, Bristol Zoo, Millennium Stadium, Sally's Salon etc are for Youth Services, Looked after Children or schools. We hope so anyway.

Apparently the 'foreign' travel, which amounts to around £2500 for the period relates, "in the main"  to "statutory visits that social workers are required to make in relation to adoption cases" I'm not quite sure why, or where they have to go, but most trips seem to involve Dublin. Seems fair enough though.

It should always be remembered that these are just purchases and bookings made with the credit cards only. If, for instance, Members or officers were sent on a fact finding mission to research gambling licenses in Las Vegas, they're unlikely to use the credit card. Not that I'm suggesting they have of course.

I'm sure many of the train tickets and hotel stays would relate to conferences, dinners, or events attended by officers or members. I'm not certain though, given it's proximity to Carmarthen, why there are ten entries for Premier Inn Llanelli, four for the Emlyn Arms and assorted entries for the Ivy Bush Carmarthen, Glynhir Mansion, Ammanford and Stradey Park Hotel, Llanelli. Not sure who spent £47 in the 'Taste of Jabajak' in Whitland either.

The FOI officer helpfully explains that the "Narrative generated by Barclaycard, specifically “Drinking places (Alcoholic beverages)-Bars, Taverns, Nightclubs” against certain expenditure relates to the use of these premises as accommodation by Council staff on Council business" 
Ah, I see...

The amount spent on London hotels differs enormously with some clearly preferring a little luxury on their travels. The Holiday Inn, Bloomsbury retails between £200 to £300+ per night (£309 was spent on the card).

There was clearly quite a lot of travelling and hotel-staying in London in February 2013. In amongst a surge of train and hotel bookings from around the 13th onwards, was £5089 charged to the cards for rooms at two Park Plaza hotels. There was also a return trip to the Plaza on the 15th March.
That figure of £5089 included £2389 for one individual card carrying officer, at £439 per night.

Quite what was going on in London in February 2013, I couldn't possibly guess...especially as it's supposed to be limited to 'council staff on council business"....funnily enough I was also staying in London at exactly the same time but in distinctly less salubrious surroundings...

Park Plaza

Update 29th April;
Although there is nothing like the individual extravagance of London Feb 2013, the total spent on hotels/restaurants, of assorted quality, via credit cards in the next two financial years, ie April 2013 to March 2015 was £73,000, give or take a few quid.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Herald Friday

This week's edition of the Carmarthenshire Herald is, again, worth 50p of anyone's money. It's good to see, at the bottom of page two, a report on the story I covered earlier in the week. It concerned the Council's response to a FOI by Press Gazette for the number of 'communications', or 'PR', staff with the council significantly omitting the whole press office from it's response;

'...while Carmarthenshire County Council's press office is larger than any other councils' in appears to have neglected to include those staff on a semantic point that the Council's communications unit is a separate entity from its significant press and spin operation.

In answering to the letter of the query, as opposed to its clear underlying intent, Carmarthenshire's Council once again has laid itself open to a charge of even spinning its own spin'

The Herald also covers the Extraordinary Council meeting planned for June 17th to discuss the findings of the review group following the WLGA governance report. This has been covered by this and Cneifiwr's blog at length but the article is again critical, and challenges the way the process has been handled by the council;

'...rather than accept the recommendations, the council decided to review the review and pick out the bits which, in Kevin Madge's words, would 'fit in' with the way things are done in Carmarthenshire.

The second review group, however, has only met behind closed doors and deliberations only made available by freedom of information requests.
That is despite the call to make Carmarthenshire one of the most open and transparent council's in Wales. the Working Group as been working under the aegis of a Chief Executive who is largely responsible for determining the culture at County Hall, it remains to be seen...whether the majority will continue to endorse a failing status quo'

Significantly, it's not a picture of Kev, or even Meryl which accompanies the piece about a 'change of culture', described by many as toxic


Herald Friday wouldn't be complete without a few words from the paper's resident fox. This time Cadno ventures to the wilds of Llanelli;

'Cadno visits a new place 
'It was a day that began much like any other. After a long night in the chicken coop, Cadno felt weary and decided to find somewhere warm and cosy to have a nap. Espying a handily open door, he crept inside a building and found an ideal resting place, As he went to his rest, he smiled to himself that at least one bloody cockerel would not be disturbing his post-prandial slumber. 
A quick hop and skip and Cadno was soon snoozing in the back of a trailer. As he slept, Cadno dreamed of riding on horseback across green fields, while the baying of hounds from a distant copse indicated that Simon Hart had been cornered. 
Waking with a jolt, Cadno slipped his snout out into a noisy day into a vista consisting of a prime view of what appeared, on first glance, to be the slopes of Hell. Smoke belched and billowed, the air stank of sulphur, legions of the damned moaned in torment.
Readers, this was not a quiet nook. 
Cadno looked at a sign to establish his whereabouts. Was this the second circle of Dante’s Inferno?
No, readers, this was Llanelli. 
Checking to make sure that those attired in scarlet were not also sporting horns and pitchforks and agog at the noise and chaos, Cadno crept from his hidey hole.
Little had Cadno dreamt that one day he, too, would walk on the legendary streets paved with half-eaten kebabs and breaded chicken bones tossed carelessly aside, but there he was, readers. The Promised Land. 
There were many signs up in Llanelli. Much seemed for sale but little seemed sold. Posters for protest, posters for gigs, posters for almost anything under the sun abounded. Most of the posters seemed stuck on or in whited out shop windows. 
When you want to discover what the County Council’s vision for regenerating town centres is, readers, pop along to Llanelli. As retail destinations go it is the last stop on the road to nowhere. Only Dudley in the West Midlands ranked lower than Llanelli in a survey of retail vitality. The corpse is not yet cold, but twitching seems to have ceased. 
In a corner Cadno espied a couple of shady coves wrapped up in conversation. They were talking about Hengoed councillor Sian Caiach. Collaring a nearby Cardigan corgi to act as translator, Cadno discovered that these shady figures were not fans of Cllr Caiach. No, readers. They did not like her one bit. One of them went so far as to suggest that the party for which Cllr Caiach stands was not properly constituted. 
Pulling out his I-phone, it took Cadno all of two minutes to put the kybosh on that assertion. 
On the pair mumbled. They were concerned that Cllr Caiach would take votes away from their candidate and spoil his chances. They decided on a desperate ruse of contacting a newspaper to see if it would do their dirty work for them. 
Cadno’s fur bristled.
And the extent of their news, readers?
They asserted that Dr Caiach had signed the nomination papers for another candidate in the same election. 
Dialling the Electoral Commission, Cadno discovered that there was nothing in the rules to prevent Cllr Caiach being another candidate’s subscriber, if she wished. So, if there was a story there, there was not much of a story there. 
If true, it is fair to say that the alleged act appeared to Cadno to be a pretty rum thing to do: endorsing an opponent for a post you wish to occupy could be held as being rather equivocal about one’s own chances of victory or suitability for the post. 
Perhaps those Cadno stealthily ear-wigged were concerned that the candidate endorsed by Sian Caiach would also take votes away from their candidate. 
But contacting a newspaper to try and get them to smear Sian Caiach is pretty underhand. 
Perhaps they were enthused by the storm in a teacup about comments made fifteen years ago by a Plaid Cymru candidate standing in another seat. Certainly, Cadno thinks that using the press as an attack dog for one party or the other is a squalid thing to do. It disgraces the candidate seeking to benefit from such a strategy, treats the electorate with contempt, and demeans the editor who bows to a candidate’s agenda to fill a paper devoid of news. 
Imagine, if you will readers, the existence of a newspaper that was so dependent on handouts from one party or organisation that it printed whatever its funder wanted with scarcely a word of criticism and did not print news that reflected adversely upon the paying party. Now in those circumstances, readers, you would say the relevant media was acting as no more than a tart for hire. And a pretty cheap one, too. 
So what would you think of a newspaper that performed that service for free? 
Cadno looked at the two rapt in their conversation. He slunk away into the shadows and, despite the heat of the day, shivered.
Llanelli or not, readers, this was plainly an abode of lost souls.'


Lastly, you may have seen the news from London concerning the disgraced Mayor of Town Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, who has been found guilty, by the special Election Court, of corrupt and illegal practices. One well respected blogger in particular, Ted Jeory, has played a big part in seeking justice over this matter and writes in today's Independent.

The concluding paragraph should strike a couple of chords everywhere, and not least of all in Carmarthenshire;
"And lastly…I started my spare-time blog in 2010 when I realised my former paper, the East London Advertiser, was no longer able or willing to keep an eye on the detail of the council administration. I kept plugging away where it should have been. For that, I received numerous legal threats from the town hall. None succeeded. But the retreat of so many local papers  is deeply worrying. 
How many other Lutfur Rahmans are there out there?"


The Guardian also carried an interesting piece on the ups and downs of local newspapers;
Unreported Britain - without local newspapers, who is keeping tabs? 

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Annual Reports - fact or fiction?

Back in 2013, Councillors' Annual reports began to trickle onto the website and although they're not compulsory at the moment, that could change following the Local Government Reform White Paper. The reports also list the attendance records for meetings.

The WLGA Governance Report, see here, recommended that; 'All members should produce Annual Reports in order to promote openness and transparency about the role and contributions of councillors' and Monday's meeting of the Democratic Services Committee (DSC) is considering the recommendation.

In fact, around two thirds of councillors manage to produce a report but the problem is with the template provided for their convenience. The guidance for the format of the reports, back in 2013 stated that

"It should also be noted that Annual Reports should only include factual information regarding activities undertaken and events attended" (My underlining)

Carmarthenshire council officers interpreted 'factual' in their rather unique way and the first paragraph of the template, which most councillors have used, remains distinctly a matter of opinion (see, for example, yesterday's post) and hardly 'promotes openness and transparency', again I've underlined the key sentence;

"Dear Resident, The purpose of this report is to keep you informed of some of the issues I have dealt with on your behalf during 2013/14. Real progress has been made in respect of these and I hope that you will find this information of interest"

As I mentioned nearly two years ago, (see 'Real progress - aren't we the judge of that'), I think the electorate can be trusted to decide whether or not councillors have made 'real progress' over anything.

If the DSC want to do something useful, they should change the template as clearly, in many cases, the statement is definitely misleading....

Labour Leader Kevin Madge,

The Register of Councillors' Personal Interests, a common feature of nearly every other local authority website, will eventually appear online, as per WLGA recommendation 14.

This is not, as you may think, a matter for the DSC but will happen when Ms Linda Rees-Jones, the acting or permanent (it's not clear) Monitoring Officer and head of legal, decides what, and what not, to include....

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Brawling councillors

(See later update 29th July 2016; Ombudsman tells brawling councillors to behave

Not quite sure what it is about Llanelli Rural Council but, not for the first time, the police have been called to an 'altercation' between two councillors.

As the Llanelli Star reports, the two councillors involved, Theressa Bowen (Ind) and Tegwen Devichand (Lab) also happen to be County Councillors and Ms Devichand is on the Executive Board and is deputy leader of Carmarthenshire County Council.

Ms Bowen was part of Carmarthenshire Council Labour group until a mysterious split a couple of years ago when she crossed the floor to sit with Pam's Independents. She used to sit close to Cllr Giles Morgan (Ind) until the last time the police were called to the rural council.

Her last 'altercation' was with another member of the rural council and apparently, Cllr Morgan (yes, he's another rural councillor) refused to take sides in his police statement and Cllr Bowen became a bit miffed.

There have been plenty of rumours over the past couple of years as to why these former friends, Ms Devichand and Ms Bowen have fallen out, but, as the Star reports, other rural councillors are keeping quiet.

Despite Ms Devichand's senior role at county level, for which she is handsomely rewarded, "A spokeswoman [anon again] for Carmarthenshire Council said it was not a matter for them to comment on". So there we are.

Interestingly, and according to someone present, things could have been far worse if Tegwen Devichand's daughter, Cllr Sharen Davies hadn't been present to pull her mother away from Cllr Bowen...all the same, and no matter who actually started it, the councillors' Code of Conduct is fairly clear about behaving in a manner which could bring the authority into disrepute..

Tegwen Devichand and Theressa Bowen (pic; Llanelli Star)
Update 29th April;
It is understood that both councillors have now reported each other to the Ombudsman. The process could take some time. 

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

FOI - bending the truth?

A few week's ago, Press Gazette ran a story listing the number of PR staff, or 'spin doctors' employed by council Press Offices across the UK. The story then appeared in the Western Mail.

The figures were obtained under a Freedom of Information request which asked; "How many staff are employed in your council's communications department? Please provide job titles". 

The response from Carmarthenshire Council was ten, and the job titles included Communication Manager, Advertising Officer, Web Editor, graphic designers and Print Officer.

What puzzles me is that Carmarthenshire's response appears to have conveniently omitted the Press Office - the whole point of the FOI. As far as I can tell, Carmarthenshire's Press Office still exists, along with its Press Manager, Ms Debbie Williams. The Communications Unit and its manager is a separate entity.

The clear purpose behind the FOI was to determine how much is being spent on unnecessary PR and spin when frontline services are being axed, and it is undoubtedly in a council's best interests, reputationally speaking, to send back the lowest figure possible.

Could it possibly be the case that Carmarthenshire Council have taken the FOI request so literally that they only included the Communications Unit and, er, forgot all about its Department of Spin Press Office?

Saturday, 18 April 2015

A date for the diary

You might recall, in the dim and distant past, that the Welsh Local Government Association carried out a 'peer review' concerning the dire state of governance at Carmarthenshire County Council.

The review was required following the libel indemnity and pension scandals relating to the chief executive Mark James, reported by the Wales Audit Office. The remit, which included the council's own target to become, apparently, the 'most open and transparent in Wales', turned out to be fairly comprehensive and the report it made 39 recommendations and, importantly, recognised the toxic culture which exists in County Hall.

Last year a cross party working group was set up to implement the findings of the review, under the watchful eye, of course, of two of those responsible for the mess in the first place, Mark James and Linda Rees Jones...

Anyway, it looks like the deliberations are nearly over and a date has been set for an Extraordinary Council meeting on Wednesday the 17th June to;

"consider the recommendations of the Cross Party Constitutional Review Working Group established to consider the recommendations contained in the Carmarthenshire Peer Review Report."

The  agenda will appear nearer the time and some clues as to what's in store have already emerged including the ridiculous recommendation over the public filming of meetings and, on the insistence of Mr James, we've already seen the severe curtailment of debate in the Chamber with the removal of committee reports.

Amongst the desperately needed changes to the constitution, I hope to see defeat finally admitted and the permanent removal of the unlawful 'libel clauses'. Viewed by some as nothing more than a slush fund to silence criticism, the clauses were 'suspended' the last time Carmarthenshire Council held an Extraordinary meeting;

Whatever happens, I remain of the view that no amount of tinkering with the constitution will change the toxic culture, that will remain as long as the unholy alliance of Mark, Meryl, Pam and Co remain in post.
All the same, we will be watching with interest...and so will the Wales Audit Office I'm sure.

Previous posts also include;
Wales Audit Office reports - a year old today, January 2015
The governance working group - cats and pigeons, December 2014
Carmarthenshire Council governace 'in disarray and not fit for purpose' - Sir David Lewis, August 2014

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The April shower - full council meeting

Following the usual formalities, the first item of interest was the election of chair and vice chair for the new municipal year.

Carmarthenshire retains the quaint habit of appointing Chairs and Vice Chairs by each party (including the 'independent party') taking it in turns for the 'honour'. There is no election, the main criteria is that you haven't rocked any corporate boats and actual ability is far from essential, Cllr Daff Davies being evidence of that. If by chance the Chair turns out to be vaguely controversial, shin guards are apparently required for protection from the chief executive sitting to your left.

Just as the mutual congratulations were about to start Cllr Caiach mentioned that their whole Chair appointing process was silly and archaic. A statement as shocking to sensitive municipal ears as swearing loudly in the Chamber.

As Plaid's Peter Hughes Griffiths was the Vice Chair, as light follows day, he is now the Chair for next year (the silly and archaic ceremonial pomp will feature at the AGM next month....something to look forward to).
As it is Labour's turn for Vice Chair next year they nominated 'veteran' councillor Cllr Eryl Morgan for 2015/16.

Next up was Plaid's Motion for Carmarthenshire to remain untouched by any future mergers.Everyone (nearly everyone) was in agreement that Carmarthenshire should remain as it is. The proposals for the new 'map' were changing by the day and this was leading to 'uncertainty and instability'. 

Kevin Madge took the opportunity ramble on about it being the 'best run council in Wales' and that their resources would be squandered by less virtuous local authorities. He'd also lose his £49,000 pa as Leader I suppose.

Pam Palmer, on £31k a year did the usual 'we sometimes get things wrong...but doesn't everyone?' nonsense.

After further rose-tinted back-slapping on how great the council was, Sian Caiach came up with a reality check. 

She had conducted a local survey of people's views on the issue of mergers and it turned out that not everyone agreed with the council view that it was universally popular. Some, she said, regarded the council as a basket case.

It was not the 'best in Wales', or at least she hoped it wasn't as if it was, it would be a pretty poor benchmark. She then listed several taboo issues which are not supposed to be mentioned; the curious case of the unlawful libel counterclaim against a blogger and the WAO reports; the email snooping; the possible misuse of EU funds; questionable grant awards; the gagging of whistleblowers and the covering-up of ombudsman reports.

She said that she had been trying, unsuccessfully, to get a particular ombudsman's' report (one which found that the individual had suffered six months of unlawful deprivation of liberty), onto the Health and Social Care scrutiny agenda for discussion. 

Plaid took exception to her last comment which they took to infer as a slight on the Chair of that Scrutiny Committee, Plaid Cllr Gwyneth Thomas. Cllr Dole insisted that Cllr Caiach knew that agenda items were decided by a majority vote and in a disappointing display of political aggression, suggested that after her comments this morning, Cllr Caiach would find securing a majority even more difficult.

However, I am sure that Cllr Caiach was neither convinced by his explanation nor intimidated by his threat. In fact, the reality is that is it the chief executive and the head of legal who prefer to shove ombudsman reports into locked drawers.

The majority of the rest of the meeting was taken up with parking and a rather strange Labour amendment to unaffiliated Cllr John Jenkins' Motion for a six month pilot of two hours free parking to try and help trade in Llanelli town centre.

Cllr Jenkins' motion read thus;

"This Council acknowledges the current challenges facing Llanelli Town Centre and; to show its support for local businesses and traders, to generate footfall within the Town Centre and compete with out-of-town retail parks, requests the Executive Board to implement a 6 month trial of 2 hour free parking in Council car parks in Llanelli Town Centre." 

The Amendment was put forward by Labour's Cllr Cooper with the purpose of kicking the whole idea into the long grass. An amendment has to relate to the original motion but, as can be seen here, this one does not. It didn't mention the pilot but suggested that the executive board look at more 'flexible' approaches to the demise of town centres which would include the parking policy. By failing to incorporate the original Motion at all, in effect, it 'negated it'. In other words, had the amendment succeeded, the free parking proposal would automatically fail.

It is the chief executive who decides if an amendment is constitutionally correct and he became very shirty when challenged on this point by Cllr Caiach. Plaid councillors also considered the amendment to be unconstitutional.

Several councillors wondered if they could vote on the two separately which, if approved, would result in the proposed pilot and a parking review taking place. The chief executive then got all constitutional and patronising insisting that Cllr Cooper, who had brought the amendment must agree to it becoming a Motion before they could vote on the two proposals.

Cllr Darren Price disagreed. If Standing Orders were suspended then he could bring his own Motion for the vote which could easily include the two proposals.

The arguments continued for some time and clearly became too much for Kevin Madge who then called for the suspension of the whole meeting so that the issue of the amendment could be discussed by his group.

The meeting adjourned for ten minutes and when they returned, safe in the knowledge that the Exec Board would have the final say anyway, and sparing the chief executive the public embarrassment of having allowed a dodgy amendment, clearly in favour of the Labour group, they withdrew it. The original Motion was then carried.

What the Executive Board will do with it is anyone's guess as they've already introduced Sunday charges and charges for disabled drivers, although any lost revenue from the parking concession is likely to be somewhat less than the amount spent on the chief executive's legal adventures over the past couple of years.

Independent Cllr Ivor Jackson's belated call for Pantycelyn School buildings to be kept for 'community use was up next. This comes, of course, after he had supported closing the school and voted for the subsequent development brief to demolish the nice old buildings and build 45 houses on the site. He seems to have forgotten all that. Anyway he was told the council needed the money, but he could still try 'engaging' with community groups if he wanted to. Don't hold your breath Llandovery...

With half hour to spare there was just enough time to rush through part two of the death by powerpoint 'discussion' on the local government reform White Paper. The details of which can be viewed on the webcast. Part one was 'debated' at the last meeting.

One particular proposal in the consultation is for quicker and easier intervention from the Welsh Government if things go wrong. Something which might have been welcome over the past year or two. 

Anyway, the item was duly introduced by interim assistant chief executive Wendy Walters who said that the Welsh Government would be able to intervene if there was a complaint from a whistleblower or a member of the public, this devastating news was delivered with a dramatic pause, challenging those gathered to be sure to reject that particular piece of nonsense forthwith...

And that, was more or less that.

(Archived webcast here)

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Pam Palmer ventures into the world of online advertising

As we know, Executive Board Member Decision Meetings are currently held behind closed doors, even backbench councillors are barred from attending and the agendas are not published until after the meetings have been held.

Interest in these private arrangements grew last year as 'Meryl's Meetings' gained the unwelcome attention of the press, the Wales Audit Office and the WLGA Review panel.

"The [WLGA] Review Team heard from a number of non-executive members and members of the public who expressed concern about the transparency of Executive Board Member Decision Meetings. There was no apparent non-executive member witnessing of and therefore limited opportunity to call-in or scrutinise delegated decisions made by individual Executive Board Members....and concerns that some individuals had significant delegated authority regarding funding and the distribution of grants to external bodies" (WLGA report)

The cross-party group set up to consider the WLGA recommendations has "Agreed to ask the Executive Board to consider allowing any Member to attend and observe Executive Board Member meetings"

Quite why the Executive Board has to be 'asked' rather than told, is beyond me, similarly it is being 'asked' to consider webcasting its meetings and, amongst several other polite requests, to 'consider' allowing Members to ask questions at its meetings.

Anyway, the latest Executive Board Member Meeting, which may have attracted some questions and scrutiny if any notice of it had been published beforehand and if Members were allowed to attend, concerns advertising on the council website. This, along with 'Communications' and 'surveillance' are, unbelievably I know, within the remit of that stalwart of press freedom, Cllr Pam Palmer.

In a 15 minute meeting between Pam and the Communication Manager, 'it was resolved' to launch a 6 month pilot to place commercial advertisements on the council website. The plan, not unknown amongst local councils, is to generate a bit of revenue, not a bad idea of course, but online advertising, on a publicly funded government website, is a little different to an small hoarding on a council roundabout and Members may have wished to comment.

It's a move unlikely to be welcomed by the local press either who's very existence seems to be dependent on advertising and who will now be competing with the council for limited advertising revenue. 

As for compliance with the bi-lingual requirements of the website, advertisers would merely be encouraged to provide advertisements in Welsh and English.
Careful monitoring, and hefty council disclaimers, would be essential to ensure compliance with council policies such as health and equalities, never mind the assorted pitfalls of linking to external commercial sites and possible inappropriate content. 

Care would also need to be taken to ensure that no adverts inadvertently compromised our council's wonderful reputation;

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Candidates - Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, and Llanelli

The official lists have now been published and first up is Carmarthen East and Dinefwr;

In alphabetical order;

Jonathan Edwards, Plaid Cymru
Calum Higgins, Welsh Labour
Sara Lloyd Williams, Welsh Liberal Democrats,
Matthew Paul, Welsh Conservatives
Ben Rice, Wales Green Party
Norma Woodward, UKIP

Labour is hoping to win this seat from Plaid Cymru. This is Caebrwyn's constituency and, having talked to locals, and despite this being a Westminster election, the track record of the Labour administration at Carmarthenshire Council, including the unlawful payment scandals, and the aftermath, is far from forgotten.

Jonathan Edwards has the distinct advantage of a track record of opposition to the nonsense at County Hall, and not just at election time. Cllr Calum Higgins has the distinct disadvantage of being forever associated with his group leader, Kevin Madge and has nodded through, approvingly, the relentless massage of the chief executive's ego
His attempt to gain votes by opposing a massive pay-off for Mr James earlier this year was greeted with the scepticism it deserved. It was also Mr Edwards, not Mr Higgins who felt that police intervention was required after the WAO report were published.

It also looks like UKIP's Norma made it on to the list, despite alleged 'financial irregularities' and 'inappropriate comments'.

The voters of Carms East and Dinefwr will of course be looking at the wider picture as well as local issues. I remain unaffiliated to any political party, and can only confirm that I most definitely will not be voting for Norma.


Sian Caiach, People First
Nia Griffith, Labour
Scott Jones, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition
Cen Phillips, Welsh Liberal Democrat
Ken Rees, UKIP
Selaine Saxby, Welsh Conservatives
Guy Smith, Wales Green Party,
Vaughan Williams, Plaid Cymru

It probably goes without saying, and should come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that my vote, if I lived in Llanelli, would undoubtedly go to County Councillor, Dr Sian Caiach. If anyone has a track record of fighting for her constituents; trying to root out injustice and prise open the County Hall can of worms, it's Cllr Caiach. After the training ground she's had in County Hall, tackling Westminster would be a doddle.

The constituency has been represented by Labour for 93 years, most recently by Nia Griffith. Plaid have high hopes of knocking Labour off their perch with their candidate Vaughan Williams who, if nothing else, is relentlessly enthusiastic on Twitter.

The Tories, in both constituencies have never done very well, their appeal largely limited to the huntin' and shooting' brigade. I doubt if this election will be any different and Ms Saxby is clearly not expecting great things with her address firmly remaining in Wiltshire.

Mr Rees, the UKIP man was formerly a Libdem councillor who, shortly after being elected in 2008 jumped ship and joined forces with Pam Palmer's Independents. He lost his seat in 2012. Clearly, he's now hoping UKIP will take him to the giddy heights that neither the Libdems, or perhaps Pam, ever could...

I don't intent to ramble on, there's plenty of that everywhere else, and with three and a half weeks still to go, election fatigue could well become a more significant problem than voter apathy!


For those of you who just can't get enough of it all, or wish to pose a question to your prospective representative, here's a list of the candidates that I can find on Twitter, in the same order as they appear above. UKIP are missing..and can remain so. Scott Jones from TUSC has a Facebook page but for the purposes of this post, I'm limiting the list to Twitter;

Carms E and Dinefwr;




Next week's agenda - the April meeting

With the election on the horizon our council has yet another perfect excuse to avoid controversial matters, of which there are many. This has led to a particularly thin agenda for next week's meeting of full council. No doubt the Labour leaders and the Plaid opposition will use the opportunity for some vote-catching but the purdah rules might at least stop the chief executive (and currently Returning Officer) from joining in for once.

There are a couple of Notices on Motion, firstly Plaid Leader Emlyn Dole wants Council to officially declare, to the Welsh Government, Carmarthenshire's wish to remain intact and 'stand-alone' in any future merger plans. The current proposed 'map' leaves Carmarthenshire as it is, but this could easily change over the next couple of years, and eventually I think it probably will.

The second Motion is from unaffiliated councillor John Jenkins. He is asking the Executive Board to consider a 6 month pilot of 2 hours free parking in council car parks in Llanelli Town Centre. Not a bad idea of course but any reduction in this lucrative source of income is unlikely to be entertained. If it is, and for it to be fair, it would have to extend to all council car parks in all town centres. Not just Llanelli...

There is one 'councillor question' and without a hint of irony it's from Independent Llandovery Councillor Ivor Jackson. Without having the backbone to join with the townsfolk and publicly oppose the closure of the town's greatest community asset, Pantycelyn secondary school a couple of years ago, he's now asking that the school buildings should not be demolished but retained for 'community use'.

Presumably, the whole Local Development Plan thing passed him by as the development brief for the site, which he voted to approve, is to demolish all but the sports hall and build 45 houses on the site.

Part two of the 'debate' over the local government reform consultation is also on the agenda which will presumably mean another death defying Power Point stint from interim assistant chief executive Wendy Walters. Part one was 'discussed' at the last meeting and it appeared that the Minister's dream of ending the 'old boy's club' culture will be vigorously opposed...

We then have the ever lengthening list of committees meetings, ten in fact, which are no longer allowed to be discussed, or even mentioned, thanks to Mr James.

Missing from the agenda is any mention of the £5m Carmarthen West Link road.
With almost breathless excitement the council's new Director of Environment announced last week that clearance work had started on the £5m link road for the Carmarthen West development. Incredibly, this is before the thorny matter of funding has gone to full council for approval.

The plan, recommended by the Executive Board, seems to be to dip into those 'precious' council reserves and 'other sources' (whatever they are) and hope they can get the money back through various 'agreements'. Despite the bulldozers moving in, the proposal has yet to be even "approved in principle".

In addition to the messy and vague funding arrangements, a report appeared last week (see 'Noxious fumes') designating the centre of Carmarthen as having high levels of pollution, Llanelli is also similarly affected. The council have provided and interesting statement;

"The declaration of the AQMA (Air Quality Management Area) by Carmarthenshire Council is a legal process and will include areas that are considered as being part of the solution, not just those areas affected."

Will building 1100 houses, with at least as many cars, be 'part of the solution'? The Carmarthen West development has been a 'brief' for several years and so has the monitoring of pollution levels...surely this AQMA report wasn't withheld until after the latest application for 250 houses was rushed through despite numerous objections..was it?

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Monitoring Officers

Councillors over in Pembrokeshire have been expressing disquiet over the temporary appointment of a new Monitoring Officer to replace the retiring incumbent, Mr Harding who is leaving at the end of April.
As this is a Statutory post (ie the authority has to have one) Pembs councillors insisted that proper procedures should be followed and referred it back to the council's Senior Staff Committee.

Their worries, however, pale into insignificance compared to the situation in Carmarthenshire which saw Ms Linda Rees Jones gliding quietly into the post of Acting Head of Law and Monitoring Officer way back in September 2011 around three and a half years ago without a whisper to any committee of councillors, just in time for the introduction of the unlawful pension arrangement in November of that year.

According to the constitution, (the public version anyway, we've long suspected that Mark and Linda's must be a little different), 'Appointments Committee B' must appoint the Monitoring Officer.

There is no mention of the post ever having been advertised or ever having before the committee and curiously, the council website (updated on 20th February 2015) has dropped the 'Acting'. However, the word 'Acting' remains on the 'Welsh' version of the page last updated on the 9th January 2015 (and which is in English).

English version 20th February 2015..
...and the, er, 'Welsh' version 9th January 2015
Either it's a typo on the website, or Ms Rees Jones has mysteriously become the permanent Monitoring Officer and Head of Legal...maybe she's finally acquired enough Mark James Loyalty Points.

Internal legal advice, in general terms of course, has been described by the lay member of the audit committee, Sir David Lewis, as cavalier and incompetent, I'd go a step further and say it was cosy and unhealthy. It all became very apparent over the pension and libel indemnity scandals.

For instance, for the Monitoring Officer to seek advice and approval from Mark James prior to completing the report recommending the unlawful indemnity, and then to deny that there was anything inappropriate, let alone illegal, for him to remain in the meeting during discussion and rubber stamp was staggering.

As for the official functions of the Monitoring Officer, Article 11 para 11.3(b) of the Constitution states that he, or she, is responsible for "Ensuring lawfulness and fairness of decision making", which was why those damn Wales Audit Office reports caused so much difficulty.

Ms Rees Jones is currently re-writing the Constitution, in close consultation with the chief executive of course, and, as it appears to be business as usual in County Hall, they might just as well delete para 11.3(b) altogether....