Tuesday 27 November 2012

Carmarthenshire council and corporate hubris

Carmarthenshire council failed in quite a spectacular fashion last Thursday, live on the airwaves, by labelling the two contributors to the radio programme as liars. I am sure the council will be hearing further from Ms Williams and Cllr Thomas. Maybe the Ombudsman will be called in yet again, he's certainly been busy with Carmarthenshire council recently and must surely now be wondering what's going on.

Initially the council press office issued a written statement to Radio Wales, denying there was a problem with the fire regulations. Incidentally, I spoke to the fire safety investigating officer yesterday who has confirmed that from now on the fire exit will unlocked and opened during meetings. So, as we have known for 18 months, there was a problem.

Not satisfied with just a written statement, the council press office contacted the BBC on the morning of the show and insisted that the following verbal comment was added;

"The people who are contributing to the programme today are running a campaign against us (the county council) and are spreading untruths."

This was a very strong allegation and presented as a statement of fact. There was no explanation and no attempt at justification. I also have very good reason to believe that the council were not told who the contributors were, for all they knew it could have been a group of schoolchildren. Even if they did know, there was no excuse, nor reason, for the attack. It was simply reckless and outrageous.

The familiar pattern of deliberately smearing anyone who challenges or questions the collective wisdom of Carmarthenshire County Council is nothing new, and we have seen it time and time again with residents, groups or county councillors who exercise their democratic right to make complaints, oppose council led projects, campaign against school closures, etc, or even it, seems, raise concerns about safety in the public gallery.

There is always an inference, or statement, that people have a 'hidden agenda', that their complaint or criticism is disingenuous; there is incomprehension that anyone could sincerely have an opposing or critical view. There is an arrogance from this council which, for the past few years, has been getting out of control. This has also manifested itself in repeated attempts to influence editorial control of the local media.

To illustrate the point that this has all been going on for some time, I'd like to take you back to 2006.

A few of you may remember Mr Harry Lloyd, a Carmarthenshire pensioner who was a regular contributor, a few years ago, to the letters page of the Carmarthen Journal. He had the temerity to question and scrutinise various issues relating to the dire level of democracy within the council.

One particular spat saw Mr Lloyd voicing his concerns that, in his opinion, members of the planning committee deliberately stayed away from meetings rather than vote against council led projects, fearing a backlash from senior officers.

The Chief Executive responded by launching a very personal attack on the 85 year old in a letter published in the paper. The sole aim was to destroy Mr Lloyd's credibility and sincerity, in a strikingly similar fashion to the comments from the council press office last Thursday.

Amongst the shocked responses to the Chief Executive's letter in 2006 was a very measured reply from another letter writer, who also happened to be an expert on human rights issues;

Here's her letter;

It is with unbelievable shock that I read the latest contribution in the public domain from the pen of Carmarthenshire Council Chief Executive Mark James (Journal, October 18th 2006).

I have tried to avoid personalising the comments I make on the issue of governance and democracy in the county, but on this occasion I feel it is imperative to make a comment on such a visceral personal attack on a council taxpayer, pensioner and legitimate voter of the county, Harry Lloyd.

Given what has transpired over the last few months in relation to the decision making process, it would have been prudent of the council to keep a low profile.

Instead it has continued to issue statements to defend the indefensible, and resorted to unbelievable paranoia in this attack on a member of the public.

These are the questions which now need addressing;

1. Has the Chief Executive had the endorsement of the board and full council to deliver such a tirade in the public domain?

2. Is the council considering the human rights of individuals they choose to target in such a way? Public Authorities are required to do so since the introduction of the Human rights Act in 1998.

3. Is it not the function of an individual who takes on a leadership role such as this, to be as diplomatic as possible in order to avoid bringing his organisation into disrepute? Letters such as these will do enormous damage to the organisation because the issues at stake cannot be verified or scrutinised by the public. It is the Council's word against that of Mr Lloyd.

4. Is it the case that the council considers the attempts of Mr Lloyd to elicit accountability and transparency from it's hidden depths, to be such a major threat, that it finds the scapegoating of a member of the public acceptable, due to the fact it has such a lot to hide?

5. Is it not time for senior management at County Hall to consider an anger management course in the light of such an unacceptable tirade?

6. Where is the collective democratic power of the full council in putting pressure on the Executive Board to reverse this paltry state of affairs? Once again, it is the public which must judge on these issues.

The only warning I can give is this - who will be next in the council's firing line, and does not this attitude from the council smack of fascism and everything this country has opposed in it's fight to preserve democracy, fair play and justice?

You will not get any of this in Carmarthenshire. But you will get plenty of opinionated claptrap from the council, which is a cynical ploy to deflect attention from the legitimate public debate as to the unacceptable structure of a council which has clearly now lost the plot.

No member of the public need apologise or defend him or herself from exercising their legitimate right to scrutinise government, and it is not the function of any government to try to suppress those rights, or to create such a divide between people and the decision-makers which takes away those rights.

H Thomas
Cross Hands

That, don't forget, was in 2006.

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