Monday, 19 January 2015

Returning Officers and elections on the way

If nothing else, our local prospective parliamentary candidate Cllr Calum Higgins (Lab) seems to have realised his best election tactic is to distance himself from the Labour leadership in County Hall.

A couple of weeks ago he announced that the Labour group would be blocking a big pay-out for the chief executive; with Calum quoted in the papers, Kev was left in vague agreement and grumbling because someone had leaked the details he'd been sitting on for five weeks.

Another point which appears to have been the subject of recent 'doorstep chats' is the matter of Returning Officer fees. Calum is back in the South Wales Guardian tonight calling for a Wales wide review.

The public, he said, felt that chief executives should receive no extra payment for the role. It was part of the job and in fact, in Carmarthenshire appears in the official job description.
It is a curious fact that Cllr Higgins has only just formed this view.

A Welsh Government report has recently been published about the regulation and monitoring of public sector senior pay and includes reference to Returning Officers. It recommends that any fees are clearly stated in the council accounts.

It is no coincidence that this is something of a hot topic in Carmarthenshire.

Back in July 2012 I noticed in the councils accounts that the chief executive appeared to have a £20,000 pay rise. Initial enquiries established it as Returning Officer fees. Plaid Cymru politicians Jonathan Edwards and Rhodri Glyn Thomas followed it up and it took until January 2013 for the full details to come out.

Incidentally I was accused by Mr James of "even asking about my election expenses".

The fees, it transpired, were for the local elections in May 2012 and were paid several weeks before the election and before the number of contested seats were known. A freedom of information request established that the council didn't even know exactly what date the money was paid.

The Plaid MP and AM said at the time;

“I’m sure the residents of Carmarthenshire will be asking serious questions as to how funds were available to pay the £190,000-a-year Chief Executive a cash advance of £20,000 at a time when services were facing, and continue to face unprecedented cuts.

“...the role of Returning Officer should be incorporated into the existing duties of a Chief Executive and constitute part of their job description to put an end to these hefty elections fees which are paid almost every year."

They then reported the matter to the Wales Audit Office.

In March last year they called into question Mr James' role as Returning Officer whilst on gardening leave during the criminal investigation following the pension and libel scandals.

I don't remember Cllr Higgins standing up in the Chamber and calling for any Wales wide reviews then...or the year before.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suddenly taking political sides, but the point needs to be made that the Labour leadership, supposedly the champions of the working man, have, along with Meryl's Independents, been championing only one of them, their highest paid employee.

The Returning Officer 'advance' was actually 'advanced' in the previous financial year; the unlawful pension payments were a way of avoiding tax; how other benefits-in-kind such as legal costs are calculated remains unknown.

According to Cneifiwr's blog, rumours that the chief executive had requested his severance to start in the next financial year, after the scheme had finished, appear to be confirmed.

Whether the Labour leadership will remain true to its word and block a severance deal remains to be seen but one thing is sure, there's definitely an election on the way and although by then we may have a new Returning Officer, it's not hard to guess the main topic of conversation.


The Dylan Thomas wind turbine

Judgement has been reserved in a one-day Judicial Review held in Cardiff today. It concerned a planning application for a wind turbine across the water from Dylan Thomas' boathouse.

The planning officer recommended refusal but the committee approved it following the curious intervention of Cllr Daff Davies, who you recall from the webcasts is also Chair of the Council. Campaigners against the turbine brought the case. Whatever the outcome, it will be an interesting ruling. The Western Mail has the story.


Once again I'd like to thank everyone for all their messages of support and good wishes.

No comments: