At the end of May, Cllr Sian Caiach predicted
that the new look Carmarthenshire council would turn out to be a case of the same old thing - 'Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose?' and last Wednesday's meeting provides a good example.
Hot on the heels of last month's powerpoint extravaganza, which was supposed to be the catalyst to make the council the most open in Wales, the question on Parc Howard, a hot, controversial topic, featured in numerous press and blog articles over the past couple of weeks
wasn't answered. What a surprise. Meryl Gravell, along with eighteen other councillors didn't turn up.
Perhaps she had a valid excuse but the question has not only been hanging in the air for weeks, it has been on the published agenda for days and Wednesday was a perfect opportunity for some transparency and honesty. Couldn't anyone else
provide a response and an explanation? Of course they could. The matter could have been thrown open for a brief discussion, whether Meryl was there or not.
After all, it appears that senior officers have plenty of knowledge of the situation and as Herald columnist Cadno writes in this week's edition;
"...the Council decided that it was prepared to work with the developer to smooth the transaction through by circumventing any requirement for public scrutiny of the speculative venture.
And when Cadno refers to ‘the Council’ readers, he is not impugning the overwhelming majority of councillors who were kept in the dark, but he is referring to the officers who were prepared to skulk around the Diplomat Hotel offering to pass up Llanelli’s family silver to parties unknown. The whole way that officers conducted themselves suggests that the words ‘due diligence’ are an assemblage of syllables of little or no meaning to them."
Cadno expresses disappointment that Meryl wasn't there to offer her eternal wisdom and enlightenment on the sorry saga, particularly as;
"we can now all be confident that the culture of secrecy at County Hall has been swept away by a series of Powerpoint presentations and working groups"
"...And, of course, Cllr Gravell would have been able to demonstrate just how firmly she has control of the officers in departments under her democratic purview by distancing herself from their actions and making it clear that the cause of democracy is dear to her heart. None of this mealy-mouthed and platitudinous nonsense about trying to get the best deal for the public of the whole of Carmarthenshire: a detailed exposition of how officers acted and what steps they had taken to ensure the bona fides of the companies concerned. And, if it emerged that officers had not done some homework, how those officers would not be allowed the key to the banana plantation in the future..."
(for the full version of this splendid column, The Carmarthenshire Herald, priced at 50p is available all good newsagents, and on facebook here)
The fact of the matter is that controversial and potentially embarrassing topics are still being blocked from debate. Cllr Caiach demanded that Meryl's written response to Cllr Williams be circulated to all councillors.
had to go through the ridiculous ritual to suspend standing orders to ask supplementary questions. Not only that but the Plaid
Chair was most unhappy ('I won't allow this
to happen again') because one of his colleagues asked a series of questions about the Severance Scheme which had featured in a recent Exec Board meeting. The Councillor concerned had wanted to ask them at the Exec Board meeting but he hadn't been 'allowed'.
The explanation of course is that the constitution and the standing orders haven't been rewritten yet. They'll have to wait another few months. Good grief - by then, will have been almost a year since the WLGA report came out.
At one point Cllr Caiach expressed her deep disappointment at Plaid's record so far as an anti-austerity party who were, to all intent and purpose continuing the pattern and record of the previous administration instead of challenging the cuts to services.
It would appear that Unison Carmarthenshire takes the same view in its latest newsletter;
Plaid Cllr Darren Price responded to Cllr Caiach by saying that the budget had already been passed, their hands were tied and they'd er, welcome any suggestions she might have.
What is the matter with them? Where's the passion? Where's the vocal and public determination not to follow in the footsteps of Meryl, Kev and co?
To the observing public, it's simply not there.
Another example was a comment from Mark James over Welsh Government funding for the schools programme. The details can be seen on the archive but he claimed that 'political'
, and not just 'officer' pressure on the Welsh Government was necessary.
Then came the blinder; he said that they were drafting a letter on behalf
of the Leader to be sent to the Welsh Government. This is how democracy and politics works in Carmarthenshire. Come on Cllr Dole, don't become a 'Kev'.
Still officer-led? Of course it is.
Over the issue of charging for flexi-beds for the elderly and vulnerable the Labour group started bemoaning the lack of democracy as the item appeared to have by-passed completely the important step of councillor scrutiny. Ah, they've changed their tune! They, along with their friends on the Independent benches couldn't even vote for the public to film all meetings last month.
In the event the Chamber voted unanimously to send the flexi-bed item to scrutiny - but why had Plaid allowed it on the agenda in the first place?
What exactly has happened here. Plaid, particularly the politicians outside the Chamber have delivered scathing criticism that this council is officer-led, a dictatorship even. The county needed a 'political reboot', the weak executive needed to be replaced and for elected members to assert their control.
Well, as far as Plaid are concerned the 'reboot' happened - half a 'boot' anyway, with Meryl and Pam wearing the other half.
Unfortunately the jackboots are still being worn by the chief executive.
Plaid take an understandable pride in the Welsh language and wish to promote the council's bi-lingual policy, but twice now in the Chamber the Plaid Chair, Peter Hughes Griffiths has beaten Pam's drum and silenced discussion on the Welsh language. Pam has no time for it all and has made that abundantly clear, as has the chief executive.
What happened, for instance, to those 'serious questions' about the use of public money which Plaid AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas said had to be asked about the dodgy deal with the Scarlets
and the 'allowable expenses' at the beginning of June? Not a whisper.
Any why has there been no word from Plaid over the Parc Howard fiasco?
And why has the chief executive been allowed to send
a legally menacing email to a councillor?
Then there's the issue of the archives
. Whilst Meryl is off to 'glittering' ceremonies (the council press office always describes these corporate back-slapping events as 'glittering') to celebrate the B & Q-replica Dylan Thomas shed, the future of the original history of Carmarthenshire has been left hanging in the balance.
I mentioned the mould sixteen months ago on this blog. Perhaps if councillors had taken the trouble to read it instead of listening to the Witchfinder General and his warnings that their eyes would drop out and their body parts shrivel if they read a certain blog, they may have been on the case a bit sooner.
It wasn't until the issue was recently picked up by a writer from outside
Carmarthenshire and the matter began circulating on social media that the shame of widespread criticism prompted some sort of dreary response from the council which appears to consist of 'options are being looked at' and some vague, and typical mention of 'unfounded rumours'.
I don't know what the answer to the archive problem is any more than anyone else. Possibly moving the service from 'Education' to Leisure' sealed it's fate. But ignoring the problem won't make it go away.
To be honest I think Government Minister Leighton Andrews made a valid point a couple of weeks ago when he responded to opposition to mergers;
"I think there is to a degree in certain areas a desire to protect empires."
It doesn't matter who takes political
power of the Carmarthenshire empire, or fiefdom - The best way for a dictator to control his opponents is to give them a taste of power - but only a little, with the dictator and his disciples retaining a firm hold on the leash and in full control of the rule book.
If Plaid don't start making those waves they have been promising for so long, they will give the appearance of having fallen into one big murky trap.
Finally, a brief letter appeared in Monday's Western Mail from a Carmarthenshire resident;
SIR – In Saturday’s edition of the Western Mail, the best part of two pages were devoted to the advertising of two senior positions within Carmarthenshire council.
When you deadhead the gibberish jargon and verbiage of the duties of the posts it is evident that the authority is looking for a qualified accountant and chartered engineer.
Both command salaries of up to £120k per annum, around £25,000 less than the Prime Minister of the UK (population 64 million) in a rural backwater like Carmarthenshire (population 184,900 : mid 2014 estimates). When Carmarthenshire becomes subsumed into the larger entity of Dyfed (population 384,000) what sort of salaries would these posts command?
When Plaid Cymru took over the control of the authority earlier this year I was under the erroneous impression they would bring an end to these stratospheric salaries.
Mr L, Llangynnor.