Sunday 14 June 2015

Extraordinary Council Meeting - Agenda

(19th June; Please also see later post, written after the meeting)

I use the word 'agenda' in the loosest possible sense as, so far, all we have to suggest that next Wednesday's Extraordinary meeting is the pivotal moment when Carmarthenshire Council becomes the 'most transparent in Wales' and the culture is scrubbed clean from toxins and secrecy, is the sentence ;

"To receive a presentation from the cross party constitutional review working group established to consider the recommendations contained in the Carmarthenshire peer review report". 

Hopefully something more enlightening, such as the final report of the working group and/or an amended constitution, will added before Wednesday, I'll let you know. I can't imagine that the content for discussion, for such an important meeting will be left as a surprise....(Update 3pm Tuesday; still no documents..a surprise it is then)

However, documents or not, we all know by now what needs to happen so let's remind ourselves how this all came about.

The straw that broke the camels back, shall we say, was the publication of the Wales Audit Office reports in January last year. Finally there was acknowledgement, from an independent watchdog that there were grave problems as to how this council was run. Many had been saying this for a very long time.

The reports exposed, once and for all, that senior officials, along with their pliant Executive Board were prepared to manipulate the democratic system to their own ends. By 'senior officials' I am of course referring to the chief executive, Mark James and his cohort of internal legal advisers.

The rot set in some years previously, around 2002 in fact when Mr James took up post in County Hall. He brought with him, from his past employment in Boston, Lincolnshire, not only plans for a stadium which would see both counties bled dry, but a contempt for democracy, a questionable modus operandi in the workplace and a desire to control the press, all of which rapidly became the envy of tin pot dictators around the world.

The WAO didn't just expose flawed processes and poor governance, they exposed deliberate concealment and illegal payments. Not unlike the fiasco in Caerphilly.

However, as we know by the council 'rescinding' the pension scam and 'noting' the illegal libel indemnity the WAO took it no further. The risk of heavy costs to two public bodies was too great and we know, that over the libel indemnity, Mr James would have sold the county to the highest bidder, never mind it's 'jewels', to fund a defence.

One thing the WAO did recommend was that the council review it's governance procedures (and it will be monitoring progress) and at last year's Extraordinary meeting it was decided that the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) would lead a 'peer review'. In a Motion proposed by the then Plaid opposition, the council itself resolved to become the 'most open in Wales'.

After some persuasion the WLGA also accepted contributions from members of the public on a variety of topics and general comment. One notable contribution came from the lay member of the council's Audit Committee, Sir David Lewis who said that the council was 'in disarray and not fit for purpose', the internal legal advice was 'cavalier at best and incompetent at worst' and basic rules and ethics regarding conflicts of interest had not been applied by either senior councillors nor senior management.

The long awaited report emerged in November 2014 and it's content was broadly welcomed although not by Mr James who repeatedly, and publicly, sneered at the whole exercise. There were 39 recommendations ranging from the council's relationship with the press to the lack of detail in Minutes...and from publishing the register of Members' Interests to reviewing its practice of collecting the details of visitors to the public gallery... with time limits for compliance of between 3 and 6 months.

Although the report was couched in polite terms it identified the toxic culture, the democratic deficit and the fact that the council was officer-led. It was a constructive report and aimed to reverse the ten years of democratic damage.

Instead of just implementing the recommendations yet another committee, (which included the less than enthusiastic former leader Kevin Madge and current deputy leader Pam Palmer, who called it a 'distraction'), was set up to consider the review and to decide which bits to include, or not to include.

The 'cross-party working group' was overseen by Mark James and acting (or not, no one knows), monitoring officer, Linda Rees-Jones and met several times, over several months. Some of the minutes from these meetings, which were held behind closed doors, were begrudgingly released after repeated requests.

All of which brings us where we are today. Maybe the lack of detail on the agenda means that the new Plaid led coalition have plumped for a free for all, all recommendations, and more, will be brought in forthwith and those individuals who have caused the problems in the first place will be fired on Wednesday...a new dawn will emerge on Thursday morning. I doubt it though.

As I have said in previous posts, the Action Notes which were released indicate mediocre changes, not a root and branch overhaul. There was obvious complacency and corporate smugness towards the need for a change in culture but that was to be expected in the presence of Mark and Linda, and Meryl.

All a bit disappointing to say the least, particularly as it was a cross-party group but with Plaid now in the driving seat should we be expecting something slightly more momentous?

Take the faintly ridiculous public filming proposal from the working group. Not the most important point perhaps but significant in terms of democratic principle. The proposal is suggesting that the public can film only those meeting already webcast and then only for a 12 month pilot.

Back in 2012 Peter Hughes Griffiths former leader of the Plaid group proposed a motion for members of the public to be able to film or record all open meetings. Plaid voted in favour but the Labour and the Independent group, aided and abetted by Mark and Linda, successfully mangled the motion and that was the end of that.

Will Plaid now reject the recommendations of the working group, on which they sat, and be true to their principles, and voting record from 2012? Or are the camera shy Meryl and Pam still calling the shots?

A number of the WLGA recommendations were sent off to the Exec Board for consideration which, at the time was thought to be a safe bet. Let's hope it's not quite such a safe bet any more even though Plaid, as the larger group, still have only half of the seats...I think we can at least expect Exec Board meetings to be webcast from now on.

One of the more bizarre amendments brought in a couple of years ago to curtail debate, the seven-seconder rule will, I believe, be finally dropped. Which is something, although one wonders how many issues have been prevented from being aired since it was introduced.

It remains to be seen what the final report, or 'presentation' from the working group recommends and I hope it's a bit more far reaching than those 'Action Notes' suggest. The constitution will I suppose be amended to incorporate any changes that are made and I fully expect the illegal, and currently suspended, libel indemnity clauses to be permanently removed. Defeat must be finally accepted over that one.

As I have said before, I do not believe that the culture will change until there's a change in top management and that doesn't seem likely now, not in the short term anyway. The political dynamics have changed but only to a degree and we hope that Plaid haven't 'done a Kev' and kissed Meryl. Or even worse, kissed Mark. Time will tell.

Aside from the 'governance issues' specific to the WLGA report there are many other matters which must now be addressed. To give just one example, I'd like to see the Plaid group mirror the concerns of their colleague in Cardiff, Rhodri Glyn Thomas over the dodgy, and quite possibly fraudulent, Marston's deal.

The revision of the press and media protocol has already been approved by last week's full council but as I said at the time, a paper exercise is useless without a change in attitude from the ivory towers of County Hall and at the moment, that change is far from apparent. Quite the opposite in fact,

The new Plaid led coalition has promised to “ensure full openness and transparency”. Council Leader Emlyn Dole said that “This will take integrity and perseverance on all our parts. That commitment will require of us all, not only a change of governance, which will be discussed fully by us all and implemented before the summer break, but a new mindset as we seek to ensure full openness and transparency."

I will be watching with interest on Wednesday and, as I said, if any documents appear between now and then I will let you know. I'm not certain how this 'presentation' will work next week but it will be interesting nonetheless and with the wonders of modern technology, it be available to watch on the webcast (Wednesday 17th June 10am).

To be honest, the worst case scenario is that they decide to set up another bloody committee....


Anonymous said...

This seems to be the best chance we have ever had to turn things around in CCC.Who could ignore the damning words of Sir David Lewis.Those responsible have utter contempt for anything resembling truth and honesty.Plaid have been entrusted with an important task of bringing back democracy to a council responsible for its demise.

Anonymous said...

Plaid must now step up to the plate and exert some control over the debate re: the recommendations In Full of the WLGA report. Any less will be seen as a failure and the electorate will be in judgement next year.The seemingly utter contempt for any person or group who dare to criticize the workings of the executive at County Hall needs to be stopped once and for all.

Tessa said...

Excellent post Jacqui. Let's hope all of Plaid read it - although I'm sure they will. We're watching you, Plaid - and now's your chance to demonstrate whose side you're on. Here's hoping you're bold enough to back up your previous fighting talk.

Anonymous said...

Of course Tessa.Plaid will have to deliver or lose their credibility.We can do nothing except keep up the pressure so that they know we expect accountability.Not much of that in the previous administration.