Thursday 16 August 2012

Chief Executive's complaints to the Ombudsman fail

I had heard about this some time ago but have only just got back online. The Western Mail has picked up on the story and I presume our local papers will report on it next week (will they?).

I have mentioned Cllr Sian Caiach many times on this blog as she is one of only a small handful of councillors who consistently and vocally challenge some of the more bizarre decisions taken by senior management and executive members. This has, as you will be aware brought her into conflict, on occasion, with the Chief Executive, Mark James. She is never the flavour of the month in the presidential suite.

Last year, as reported on this blog, Mr James took things a stage further and restricted her access to officers for "asking too many questions" (these are questions on behalf of constituents), he then made multiple complaints to the Ombudsman claiming that she had breached the councillors code of conduct.

None of the complaints were upheld, including the 'too many questions', and Cllr Caiach's restrictions were lifted. No actual figures were ever produced to back the claim up and Cllr Caiach believes it was the nature rather than the number of questions which were causing the, er, 'problem'.

Similarly, a complaint that she had asked the Head of Administration and Law for her legal qualifications (which was never answered) never made it to the investigation stage. Cllr Caiach was asked to make statements on other matters, none of which were regarded as code breaches. As a result the ombudsman has investigated several matters which Cllr Caiach was not even aware of and which could probably have been dealt with between the persons concerned.

For instance, the council press office claimed to have been told by a BBC reporter that Cllr Caiach had said "I don't believe a word Mark James says". The press office considered the remark to be possibly defamatory and referred it to the legal department and to Mr James.
The remark concerned allegations made by Mr James that funding for a local school may have been lost due to an objection made by Cllr Caiach. The objection was to the siting, the size and the policy of setting up very large Welsh language primary schools rather than Welsh language community schools. Cllr Caiach herself doubted whether her objection would have swayed the Welsh Government minister controlling the funding anyway, and the remark was specifically related to the funding issue. This led to Mr James making an abortive complaint to the ombudsman whereas a single call to Cllr Caiach asking for her clarification could have saved a great deal of money, effort and stress.

The Ombudsman has now written to Cllr Caiach to say that he has found no evidence whatsoever that they failed to comply with the code of conduct, referring to the recent judgement concerning the Pembrokeshire Councillor, (Calver v Adjudication Panel Wales) and article 10 of the Human Rights Act.

Another of the complaints was that Cllr Caiach had communicated to a journalist (who did not publish the comment) that she regarded former Leader, Meryl Gravell as the Chief Executive's 'cash cow'. Although Mr James made the complaint, Cllr Gravell made a statement about how upset she was and how offensive she found the term. Cllr Caiach explained her views on the matter in her own statement.
She was concerned (aren't we all) at the large salary increases Mr James and other senior managers had been awarded and the poor economic returns of several large and expensive council funded developments which Mr James had championed. As Cllr Gravell, as Leader, had secured the funding for these projects and the salary increases, she was, in Cllr Caiach's opinion, his 'cash cow'. The ombudsman concluded that this comment was not a breach of the code.

The complaints brought by Mr James clearly show how the code of conduct and complaint system can be open to abuse. Cllr Caiach believes that at it's worst, the code can be used to threaten councillors, stifle debate and restrict the freedom that councillors have to represent the interests of constituents.

Meanwhile, unlike the Chief Executive, some members of the public are having a little success with the ombudsman. One example being a long running saga concerning planning enforcement, the findings of the ombudsman were so severe that he has recommended the council consider amending it's constitution to enable the planning committee to determine issues of enforcement in certain cases. Currently, enforcement decisions are taken by officers under delegated powers - clearly the ombudsman has about as much faith in Carmarthenshire's Planning Department as the rest of us do...

The ombudsman should be there, essentially as a watchdog for the public when there are clear breaches concerning failure to declare business/financial/personal interests by officers and members alike. In my opinion, he still has some way to go on these matters, matters which determine the public perception of honesty and integrity within a council. He should also be there when a public body such as Carmarthenshire Council acts beyond it's powers and for when it is guilty of catastrophic failure to perform it's statutory duties, (including failure to adhere to it own whistleblowing policy) causing distress and anguish to those on the receiving end.
This is something which appear to be happening at an accelerating rate under this out-of-control and dysfunctional local authority.

Here's Martin Shipton's article from the Western Mail;

Ombudsman tells council boss that comments made were acceptable

Recent posts include; Ombudsman slams Carmarthenshire's complaint handling and Ombudsman warns councils over legal costs

....and Cneifiwr has an interesting post about the ombudsman here; Carmarthenshire; It's complaints galore!


Anonymous said...

It is more Cllrs like Caiach that Carmarthenshire need. God bless her!

Mrs Angry said...

just unbelievable - and that's coming from someone who lives in Barnet ... in my view the Ombudsman is a totally discredited watchdog, and I speak from personal experience. In this case, it seems common sense has prevailed for once.

Tessa said...

Cllr Caiach comes across really well here - standing by everything she said and simply providing further explanation. The complaints against her though come across as whingey whiney tale-telling, like the comedienne "Touch me, I'm Karen Taylor"'s sketch "I hear what you're saying and it sounds like this - meh meh meh boo-hoo-hoo!" etc..