Another year has almost passed in the weird and wacky world of Carmarthenshire Council. I'm not writing an in-depth review of 2015, everything I have covered is available on this blog so a brief summary, or, to be honest, a bit of a ramble, will suffice.
This time last year the chief executive was rubbing his hands at the prospect of a £446,000 pay off, safe in the knowledge that he, and a couple of his colleagues had got off scot free over the illegal payments scandal.
All that remained, was to mangle the 39 WLGA recommendations into something acceptable to themselves and ignore the call for a change to the toxic culture. All smugly achieved through death-by-powerpoint at the Extraordinary meeting in June.
Prior to that, as we know, the Labour group, as part of the ruling Labour/Independent administration, announced shortly after last Christmas that they (but not dear Meryl of course) would block any golden handshake for Mark James. Nothing to do with the approaching general election of course...
Funnily enough, Mr James then decided to grace us with his presence for a bit longer and decided to stay.
Entirely by coincidence, I'm sure, Kevin Madge was then knocked off the Leadership post and Labour crumbled. With Meryl and Mark refusing to countenance Labour's Jeff Edmunds as leader (slightly too honest), and with Plaid Cymru eager to take power, Emlyn Dole stepped in, did a deal with the devil, or devils, and took the poisoned chalice.
From a hopeful and promising opposition, the Plaid group soon assimilated themselves into the Mark and Meryl gang with new leader Cllr Dole even having his own little scandal, of the planning variety this time, to weasel out of. That episode brought into focus yet again the vagaries and ineptitude of the planning process in the county and did nothing to improve public confidence.
Recent opposition challenges to Plaid over their standard of leadership, as well as questions over the alleged fraudulent misuse of EU Coastal money, including the doctoring of evidence, were treated with a liberal coat of denial, subterfuge and whitewash.
My question regarding, in my opinion, the wholly fraudulent payment to the Scarlets, in the form of 'allowable expenses' fell on equally disengenuous ears. The Plaid leadership seemingly happy to trot out the pre-prepared script.
To be fair, much of this pre-dates the present Plaid administration and the reported ill-treatment of whistleblowers has been a constant issue at Carmarthenshire Council.
In fact allegations of this very nature, including, for that matter, the alteration of documents can be traced back even further into the mists of time, to events at Boston Borough Council, which I mentioned in this earlier post here.
In my view, as long as Cllr Dole doesn't decide to put the kibosh on any future golden handshake for the chief executive, or rock any boats, he'll probably cling on until 2017. The rot set in years ago but with Mark James and the political arm of the regime, the Independents, still holding firmly onto the reins it continues to fester.
The council have made moves over the year to outsource various services from Leisure to Social Care and Housing and currently have all ninety-six parks and playgrounds up for grabs. Various invitations for 'expressions of interest' are currently simmering quietly away with the aim to hive off assorted services, with no guarantees that terms and conditions for transferred staff would remain the same.
I expect this trend will continue and needs to be watched closely, Carmarthenshire is not known for it's due diligence or transparency when it comes to its 'preferred partners'. The proposed 'wellness centre' should already be ringing huge alarm bells for those familiar with County Hall vanity projects. It's also worth remembering as that council borrowing is already well in excess of a quarter of a billion, costing over £14m per year in 'servicing' and interest payments.
The budget consultation is underway (ends on the 3rd January) and the cuts (let's not use the word 'savings') are based on the council bean counters' prediction of a 3.3% cut in the money they receive from the Welsh Government. This turned out to be 1%. In fact the actual amount is the same as last year, just to confuse matters. How this will all translate remains to be seen but is causing confusion and uncertainty and makes one wonder if the public consultation is even more pointless than usual.
There was no uncertainty however a few weeks ago when councillors rejected a paltry 10% cut to the allowances of a handful of their executive board colleagues.
The usual budget pattern, as I've mentioned once or twice, is for a couple of red herring proposals to be initially included or, as a commentator in this week's Herald eloquently puts it; "The usual form in Carmarthenshire is for Mark, Meryl and Co to announce impending plagues of boils, famine and compulsory slaughter of the first born every year, only for them to announce in February that the first born will be spared thanks to the heroic efforts of officers and the executive board"
As not all cuts had been identified, leaving a £2.1m black hole this year, the difference between the Cardiff/Carmarthen figures may be used to plug the gap. Alternatively, a 5% Council Tax increase had been factored into this budget, so maybe there'll be room for manoeuvre here, giving Plaid some well needed PR in the new year.
The massive £18.2m cut to the education budget over the next three years was somewhat unexpected and deeply alarming, and even more surprising given the recent announcement that the Welsh government was continuing to protect this budget. There is clearly disagreement over this and recent scrutiny minutes reveal that the council have had meetings with the Welsh Government to push their agenda. The council does like to cherry pick when it comes to suggestions from Cardiff and protecting children's education is clearly not a cherry they want to pick.
In addition to this are cuts to special education, the closure of libraries and adult learning centres. At another scrutiny meeting earlier this month, a Motion put forward by Labour councillors to defer consideration of the budget proposals until the situation became clearer was defeated.
The County Hall Ministry of Spin is, as ever, likely to escape the worst of the cuts with no sign yet that the 'Carms News' will be consigned to history. As a council led publication they have managed to involve the limited resources of no less than six other public bodies, apart from the police who withdrew their funding in 2014, preferring to support media of the independent and democratic variety.
Whatever happens with the budget, and there will be more on all this in the very near future, I doubt if anything will become clear until after the festivities, in the cold light of January, or February. For schools trying to plan ahead this must be a nightmare. You can be assured however, of plenty of spin, particularly with the Assembly elections fast approaching.
On the upside, webcasts for full council are now well established and were joined this year by Planning and Executive Board meetings. It's just the starring cast which needs to change. Still no sign of the ePetitions page though, having been promised around twelve months ago.
March 2015 saw the last communication I have had with Mr James and his solicitors, demanding the counterclaim damages (with interest) with vague threats of further action. I remain resolute that I will not pay him a penny. With Mr James having secured a charge on my home, this will continue to be an issue, whether he's an employee of the council or not.
In recent months he's turned his legal attention to a couple of councillors who remain determined to ask searching questions, not something tolerated by Mr James.
The unlawful 'libel indemnity clause' remains in the constitution albeit in 'suspended' form, with, I am informed, no plans to delete it any time soon.
2015 was also notable for the appearance of the independent Carmarthenshire and Llanelli Heralds, their investigative articles and observant opinion pieces have been a very welcome development for those struggling to hold County Hall to some sort of account.
Their arrival has not been warmly welcomed by the council though, who have been, shall we say, a little uncooperative to say the least. So much for the 'revised' press protocol; the priority remains to bury bad news. At least the track record of bullying local reporters and attempting to control editorial content has fallen on deaf ears with the Herald. I wish them all the best for 2016.
We also saw the last post from Cneifiwr's blog back in June, though eagle-eyed readers will I'm sure have spotted a few articles popping up here and there in that unmistakable style...the blog is still accessible of course and who knows, it may return one day....Pat Racher's West Wales News is still going strong though, as is the blog of county Councillor Sian Caiach. It would be great if a few more Carmarthenshire residents, or even councillors, picked up the blogging pen, or keyboard.
Whilst I'm here, if you have a spare few minutes, and agree with the sentiments, please sign my petition to abolish prayers at full council, and there's another petition available to sign for a few more days to curb unelected power and restore local democracy, a particular problem in these parts.
I would like to wish all those who visit this blog (now approaching its seventh year) a very Merry Christmas and a healthy and happy 2016.
Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda
Diolch yn fawr iawn