Wednesday, 12 November 2014

November Council Meeting - updated

(Update 13th November - Local news coverage - below)

The main event at today's full council meeting was of course the damning WLGA Governance Review report. More on that shortly.

After the preliminaries, a series of tributes followed to veteran 'Independent' councillor Dai 'Trelech' Thomas who was retiring after 50 years as a councillor...what is of greater interest I imagine is the prospect of a by-election on December 11th. Runners and riders should be revealed next week.

The Chief Executive felt it necessary to explain that he had only published the letter of resignation from Cllr Thomas on the agenda after he had fully consulted with whole family. Perhaps this is one of many salutatory lessons he's learned from recent legal proceedings.

Anyway, the Chair proposed that Cllr Dai Thomas be granted the Freedom of the County in honour of his service, a sentiment, as you will imagine, embraced all round. Cllr Terry Davies (Lab) mentioned that this wasn't on the agenda.

As you may know, the 'It's not on the agenda' tactic is a very selective excuse to not allow controversial debates in the Chamber. Non-controversial items are fine whether they're on the agenda or not.

This was in the latter category so all that was required, as Cllr Terry Davies well knew, was some legal conjuring from the chief executive who decided that really they were only considering bestowing the honour at this meeting, not actually granting it, so it was all ok.

Moving on to the WLGA report, my comments can be read here; WLGA Report - Toxic culture recognised. The report was required following the pension and libel indemnity scandals and the council reaction to this report is being closely monitored by the Wales Audit Office.

The WLGA team presented the report in the same polite manner it was written. The message, as we know, was far from polite. The council leadership was always going to have to accept the findings and the 39 recommendations, public anyway.

Kevin Madge and Pam Palmer (Ind) attempted to confine the essence of the report to the pitiful state of the constitution rather than the wider culture change that was urgently required and they wondered whether all the changes might not quite 'fit in' in Carmarthenshire.....and there were 'other issues' to consider...whatever they were. Oh dear.

Given the past performance from Kev and Co over the unlawful payment reports they had little choice but to accept it to fend off the Wales Audit Office and to try and save face, albeit begrudgingly.

Kevin Madge said he could 'live with' the 39 recommendations; Cllr Emlyn Dole, the Plaid opposition leader pointed out that Cllr Madge needed to 'embrace' the sentiment rather than just live with it if the council was ever going to become the 'most transparent in Wales'.

The cultural barriers had to come down. Cllr Dole added that he felt that the strong criticism over recent years were fully justified by this report.

It was a pity that the Plaid group didn't take the opportunity to put forward the strong views of their colleagues, Jonathan Edwards MP and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM.

Labour Cllr Bill Thomas described the constitution as having been slowly 'strangled', along with the councillors voices. He also acknowledged that it was the compliance of councillors which had allowed this to happen.

Cllr Pam Palmer wished to emphasise the 'good' points, as you would never know there was anything 'good' if you read the local press, she said....Pam, as Executive Board Member for Censorship has played her own part in supporting County Hall's desire for editorial control...with varying degrees of success.

The issue is so grave that respect for the independence of the local papers and refraining from threatening behaviour form one of the recommendations of the report itself.

Pam also informed everyone of her continual pride in her own openness and transparency, a quality she has kept remarkably well hidden. Anyway, I'm looking forward to Pam enthusiastically agreeing to allow the public to film meetings..

One name which was politely left unsaid, but hung in the air like a bad smell was that of the chief executive and his role in all this. The councillors may have been largely compliant, but this descent into total disarray in matters of governance has, in my opinion, been driven by Mr James, aided and abetted by that 'cavalier and incompetent' internal legal advice. A toxic combination.

Fortunately for the top brass this was a 'peer review' and not an 'investigation' in the 'heads-should-roll sense. Pity.

The Wales Audit Office have refused to endorse the council's capacity for improvement until this report has been accepted and urgently rolled out. It is up to the councillors now. The chief executive is going, with his severance package under one arm, and his charge on my home under the other, happily leaving them sort out his legacy of democratic destruction..

Mr James only contribution to the debate was on a procedural matter but he couldn't resist a sarcastic swipe at the review team on his right saying he didn't want things to appear "officer-led" nor appear "overbearing"...
It is obvious that our chief executive found the whole review exercise at best an utter bore and at worst, a complete joke, a view he seems happy to share.

Mr James reacts to the WLGA report

The report was accepted and a cross-party committee was to be set up to examine the findings and recommendations, and draw up an action plan with a 'culture change' in mind. The WAO and it seems the WLGA team will be monitoring progress and any developments. So will I.

The group will then report back to council in January. Cllr Caiach suggested that an extraordinary full council meeting be convened to discuss the report in detail but this was considered to be just a little too hasty and what better way to kick things into the long grass for a couple of months than to form committee and insist it produces a report.

Forgetting, of course that the report, from the WLGA, has already been written.

Also on the agenda were several 'councillor questions'. Readers will recall the fiasco at the last meeting when councillors voted 30 - 27 to stop themselves from asking those all important supplementary questions.

Perhaps realising how idiotic that vote looked to the webcast watching public, and knowing that Cllr Dole was going to request the vote again, Cllr Madge decided to quickly propose a motion allowing supplementary questions himself, which was then approved. Embarrassment avoided.

The details of the questions along with everything else which was discussed today can be seen on the archived webcast, but I must just mention the deflection of Cllr Caiach questions to Executive Board Member for dog dirt and sewage, Cllr Jim Jones. Silencing Cllr Caiach's attempts to spoil the genteel surroundings of the Chamber by mentioning raw sewage has become something of a hobby on the top table.

Both Cllrs Bill Thomas and Sian Caiach had declared their usual interests at the start of the meeting. Namely their opposition to planning policy in relation to pollution in the Burry Inlet.  Cllr Thomas warned council that the authority itself could be fined now that the UK government had accepted the EU findings that regulations had been breached.

Clearly Jim was fully primed with a a strictly-to-be-adhered-to script. How long had Cllr Jones knew that EU pollution rules had been breached? Could the council put the 'please wash your hands after using this beach' signs a little nearer to the ice cream shop and cafe on Llanelli beach? Asked Cllr Caiach. Clutching his script and mindful of obeying strict orders from above, Cllr Jones insisted he would only reply to Cllr Caiach IN WRITING.

It is not clear just how much grasp Cllr Jones has on his £29k per year portfolio. He said that he had yet to speak to his new departmental head, so when he does, presumably he'll be told what to write.

Cllr Bill Thomas tried to raise a Point of Information over what had been said but....Ah! There is was! The 'Not on the Agenda' tactic, swiftly deployed, end of debate.

 The Chair....

Archived meeting here.

The agenda for Monday's Executive Board meeting has been published and the latest budget proposals, and the timescale for consultation, are on the agenda.

The draft proposals can be read (or deciphered given the bad formatting) here, proposals include permanently switching off 9100 streetlights and, in an unprecedented move, reducing the number of official chauffeur driven executive motors from two, to just one...desperate times here in Carmarthenshire...
More on that in the near future..


Update 13th November;

Local news coverage

The local papers, the Carmarthen Journal and the South Wales Guardian have both covered the WLGA findings. The Journal has a two page special report and includes an article on the petition, 'Hundred's join drive to block chief's pay-off'. (Petition here)

The group leaders on the council voice their opinion on the WLGA report.

Cllr Emlyn Dole (Plaid) describes the erosion of democracy as power has been passed from elected members to chief officers and he promises that the group will do its 'utmost' ensure the report is implemented;

"...if there is any backtracking on this, we will move a motion of no confidence in the whole executive board"
Judging by Kevin Madge's comment, that backtracking may have already begun,;

"...There are a few issues I have with the report which I will expand upon after the full council meeting and later down the line. However, the view that the council has been too officer led I cannot agree with. Decisions have always been taken by councillors"

(was that ok Mark? Yours, Kev)

The South Wales Guardian carries an opinion piece on that very issue and the use of the word 'perception';

"..According to the report, it has also been 'widely perceived' that this council has been 'officer led'. 
Widely perceived' is an interesting choice of words - it is what people think, but gives little indication of the reality. 
While perception is massively important, the true nature of events is just as crucial. 
The Guardian would go one step further than the report: for the past years Carmarthenshire County Council has been officer led, with the elected representatives having little control over the decisions and the purse strings. 
This paper's battles with the local authority are well documented. However there does now appear to be a change in the air.
The Guardian welcomes that shift. 
The proof of the pudding will, of course, be in the eating - not just this week, but next week and long, long into the future." 


Sian Caiach said...

My understanding of CCC commissioning a "peer review " report from the naturally sympathetic WLGA was to prevent the threat of the Welsh Government sending the Commissioners in to take over and sort us out.
We have been advised by the WLGA team to basically act decently to each other, stand up and take the council leadership back from the senior officers, most of whom are leaving soon or already gone.
Unfortunately at least one executive member clearly cannot function without an officer .Cllr Jim Jones, on questioning, cannot remember when he was first informed of the huge problem of sewage pollution in the Burry Inlet. However,he says once he has met with his new departmental chief officer he will be able to reply to me in writing. The poor man does not seem to have an opinion on the most serious environmental problem in his brief. Neither does he wish to offer his services on Public Protection to monitor bacteria on the previously seriously contaminated Llanelli Beach where tests were stopped by his department. His policy is still don't test and what we don't know can't hurt anyone else.

Prior to being Exec Member he was Chair of the Environmental "Scrutiny" Committee where he successfully stifled any critical discussion of this subject. As a reward he apparently got a promotion and a very decent salary.

Now the UK is being prosecuted for failing to treat our sewage.
Jim can no longer deny his role in covering up the sewage problems, presumably in order to facilitate new builds of thousands of homes. Or maybe he was never told why he had to keep the issue quiet? Just following orders and taking the money, perhaps?

If Labour/affiliated Independent Executive Board members are of this caliber, dead in the water without an officer on hand to tell them all the answers, what hope do we have of elected members running this council?

Anonymous said...

That sounds like fighting talk to me !!

Mr Jones - honour demands that you reply to defend yourself surely.

This comment is not from someone who is trying to be obstructive but from a fellow county councillor who is accusing you of incompetence and worse.

You must reply to defend yourself.

Remember - as sure as eggs are eggs all others councillors and most senior officers read this blog site so you must surely reply in some fashion for your own peace of mind.

Redhead said...

Mr Madge still doesn't get it, does he? Let's hope the general public gets him not getting it and treats him accordingly.

caebrwyn said...

Thank you for your comment Cllr Caiach, an interesting insight.

Anon 13:55; If Cllr Jones wishes to reply then he is welcome. I would be very surprised if he does...

Redhead; Absolutely. Cllr Madge appears to lack a very basic awareness that something is very wrong. Even this report doesn't seem to have pressed the light switch, let alone the two Wales Audit Office reports.

Anonymous said...

What i failed to see in the local newspapers' reports yesterday was an APOLOGY by the council leaders in question - did they give one in the chamber.. and did pigs fly? The arrogance, stupidity and downright arrogance of these people is appalling

Wavell said...

Even Callum Higgins is realising the damage that has been done to Carmarthenshire Labour.

Too late Cal, Kev has messed things up for many years to come.

Anonymous said...

Cllr Caiach has hit the nail on the head. It's all very well everyone crowing about Carmarthenshire being officer led as Yesterday showed us why. With the political leadership via the exec board of such low calibre what option did senior officers have. Until yesterdays meeting questions were always fielded by officers. I can now see why.
The way forward is I suggest somewhat obvious

Anonymous said...

Ive just watched the web cast.

The performance of the chair was actually worse than ever - its embarrassing ??

The Labour Party in particular need to sort this out.

I think its only a matter of time before a clip of proceedings finds its way onto some reality TV show cos if it wasn't so serious it would be hilarious !!!

caebrwyn said...

Anon 08:13
Couldn't agree more. A total embarrassment.

gaynor said...

O MAM BACH _ why is the man not speaking in his mother tongue - he can hardly speak English let alone read it - after all there is a translation service - I cannot comprehend why these blokes do not speak in Welsh when their grasp of English is so terrible

Anonymous said...

When I was a kid I used to watch Dr Who from behind the settee; I felt the same about watching this council meeting - but this time it was because of embarrassment at the sheer incompetence of our public representatives rather than fear.

Not only are most of them inarticulate, but some of them seem barely able to read and Cllr Jones's responses to Cllr Caiach's perfectly legitimate questions were just awful. In fact, I am in awe of the man's effrontery to even accept such a position of responsibility which is obviously way over his ability.
He should stick to talking about problems caused by dog fouling.

And even though there was some sycophantic laughter following Mr James's witty remarks; we, who pay your wages, don't find it funny Mr James.