Saturday 21 October 2017

Teflon Mark, and other news

After three months I finally had a response from the Wales Audit Office to my complaint that the chief executive had used, or had ordered others to use, council resources to gather 'evidence' for his failed complaint of harassment to Dyfed Powys Police.

The WAO have reached the following conclusion, and I have underlined the relevant bit;

Dear Mrs Thompson

Carmarthenshire County Council: Audit of accounts for the year ended 31st March 2017

Thank you for your email dated 17th July 2017 in which you raised concerns about the Chief Executive officer at Carmarthenshire County Council potentially utilising Council resources to progress a legal case against yourself.

I have now had the opportunity to review the papers you have presented to me and make some enquiries at the council. 

The powers and duties of the Auditor General set out in the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004 are limited. Although you have a right to ask me questions as an auditor acting on behalf of the Auditor General, I can only consider questions about the accounts that are currently being audited. I cannot answer questions about the council’s policies or procedures, or anything else not relevant to the accounts. I have enclosed a link to the Auditor General’s publication ‘Councils’ Accounts: Your rights’.
This document explains: your rights to access local council body’s accounts, your right to question the Auditor General or appointed auditor about the body’s accounts, and your right to object to specific items within the accounts.

Whilst the issues you have raised do not directly relate to the 2016-17 financial statements, the Auditor General can also undertake audit work to enable him to make recommendations for improving the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of Council services.  It is under these powers that we have reviewed the issues you have raised. Having reviewed the information provided by yourself and the Council in this regard, I am satisfied that there has been no breach of Council policies by any individual member of staff.  Carmarthenshire County Council staff are permitted to access external websites and blogs during their working day.
Unfortunately, I cannot give you more help with this matter.

Yours sincerely
Jason Garcia
Audit Manager

So, apparently, no policy was breached. The 'papers I presented' to him were pages and pages of logged hits; systematic and repeated trawls through the blog. There is, I would have thought, a big difference between using a council computer to pop onto Facebook for five minutes during your lunch hour to conducting lengthy research at all hours of the working day, for your own private legal case. But there you have it. Interestingly the officers' code of conduct prohibits the personal use of any council resources unless authorised to do so. I suppose Mr James authorised himself.

On the upside, Mr James has set something of a remarkable precedent to other employees; why go to the expense and bother of employing a solicitor when you can use local authority staff and resources to do the job free of charge? Well, at the expense of the taxpayer rather than your own bulging wallet.

We can only speculate whether or not any other council employee, found to have exhibited similar behaviour and total disregard for the public wallet would have, in fact, found themselves on the wrong side of a disciplinary panel. No doubt Chaired by Mr James.

The irony is that a hefty chunk of Mr James' criminal complaint against me related to the intervention of my MP and other named politicians, in his 'private' affairs. He has consistently insisted, and instructed the council press office to confirm, that this is all a private legal matter between Mrs Thompson and himself, including his relentless pursuit of his 'gutter' money. Therefore, his blatant use of precious and ever-shrinking public resources, none of which has been denied, reveals someone who cares not one jot for the taxpayer and, quite simply, a shameless hypocrite.

Using your public position to further your own ends, whether its by using council computers or having a publicly funded legal department at your disposal is one thing; directly pocketing tens of thousands of pounds of public cash, on the other hand, through unlawful pension arrangements or legal costs, for example is quite another matter.
Trust and honesty in public life? What a joke. How he's still in post is a bloody mystery.


Further to this post published in August, yesterday's Western Mail reports again on the continuing problems encountered by residents of Century Wharf, Cardiff Bay, an apartment complex under the management of the 'moonlighting' Mr James who also owns several flats. The problems concern the behaviour of hen and stag parties, Airbnb and other overnight lettings which, according to the long term residents are prohibited under the original terms of their lease. They are taking their concerns to Cardiff council. 
Mr James, in his inimitably charming way referred to the complainants as a 'cancer'.

One commenter on the article wondered  'How on earth is the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council  allowed  to also manage a large housing complex in Cardiff, for personal gain ?'. Well, it's a question you might well ask.

I also wondered, and in broader terms, and with the officers' code of conduct in mind, who else amongst our unelected top brass had similar potential conflicts of interest outside of the council, and how they were managed by the local authority. 

A freedom of information request was duly dispatched (it can all be seen here) and although I thought they may have a register of such declarations and interests fairly close to hand, the twenty day limit came and went.

A week or so later I emailed the ICO to say that there was no sign of a response, I also copied in the council. Twenty minutes later I had this unexpected and strange response from the council; 
"the Council does not hold any declarations of interest in relation to such matters in Carmarthenshire".

Really? None? Are you kidding me or are you deliberately misinterpreting my request? Anyway I decided to ask for an internal review, (ie look again please, before I take this further) quoting the following extract from official ICO Guidance;

"Many public authorities maintain a register of interests in which senior staff are required to record, for example, business interests, shareholdings, property ownership and other outside interests, such as membership of clubs and societies, that could potentially give rise to a conflict of interests with their position in the authority. 
A public authority may need to record this information in order to monitor any potential conflict of interest, and the scope of the register could include officers below the most senior level who nevertheless make decisions affecting the public or involving the expenditure of public money. 
If this information is requested under FOIA, the public clearly have a legitimate interest in knowing that any potential conflicts are monitored, to ensure that the decisions and actions of officials are not influenced by their private interests. There is a legitimate interest in transparency in order to foster trust in public authorities."

I await their reply.


Further to my earlier post regarding the swiftly unravelling Swansea Bay City Deal and 'Wellness Village', it seems that things are going from bad to worse. It also seems that the whole thing is now officially, or unofficially, run by Mr James.

As suggested in the previous post, the 70 page draft Joint Working Agreement (JWA), commissioned by Mr James, is now dead in the water and, as the forwarded email below confirms, Carmarthenshire Council have commissioned a new one. The cost of this is undoubtedly eye-watering. However, the draft agreement, albeit virtually useless, does exist and I'm sure Carmarthenshire Council have a copy, so to say they 'do not hold information relevant to your request' is not entirely true and perhaps the request could be pursued.

There has been no word either about the meeting which was supposed to be held last week to 'brief' Carmarthenshire councillors on the City Deal and the Wellness Village; they've either been sworn to secrecy or it was cancelled and they remain in the dark; though at the moment the City Deal has effectively collapsed with no governance structure nor a clear way forward. The biggest problem, aside from the involvement of Mark James, for us mere mortals, is the level of borrowing each council will have to undertake, and in Carmarthenshire this exposure to risk will be to fund private health care and a luxury spa hotel...

The Neath Port Talbot report exposes some of the disagreements, which appear profound, but part of the problem could be Carmarthenshire's plan to siphon off some of the funding for other projects and to charge the other three local authorities a very hefty 'administration' fee. None of which will inspire confidence in either the public partners nor any potential private investors, for more details see Cneifiwr's post.

Dear Mr D.....,

Thank you for your request for information, which was received on 15th October, 2017 and has been dealt with under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA).
The specific information you requested was as follows:

Please could you email to me, by return, a copy of the latest Joint Working Agreement of the Swansea Bay City Deal.

I wish to examine the current proposed governance arrangements relating to the initiative.
I understand that Neath Port Talbot County Council has some concerns over governance of the initiative, and I wish to be aware of any exposure that may be experienced to the council taxpayers in Carmarthenshire.

In response, we do not hold information relevant to your request as currently we do not have one since fresh instructions were sent through to our external solicitors last week for a new Agreement.

Yours sincerely
John Tillman 
(Freedom of Information Officer)


Tessa said...

Re the wishy-washy response from the lily-livered Wales Audit Office - well you're not surprised are you? They're TERRIFIED of him! They can't do their job properly because of it (as well as the fact the staff are fairly low calibre on account of the comparatively low salaries and tedium of the work. They don't have the skills or the backbone to challenge someone so rich and powerful, so they just allow him to do what he wants).

Myfanwy said...

I find this all so dispiriting - and if I feel this way, God knows how you feel, Jacqui. What on earth has to happen before this man gets his comeuppance?

Anonymous said...

It is very worrying why this man is held in such high esteem by the Councillors and Welsh Government while he seems to be fighting fire at all levels - Carmarthenshire County Council, the Swansea City deal and the property portfolio in Cardiff Bay

I wonder what else is around the corner that we will hear about !

Anonymous said...

If you ask other councils locally you will find that not only are declarations an essential part of governance arrangements they are also available for public inspection.
There is no doubt that the owning of rental properties,being on management companies etc requires declaration for a whole range of reasons.
As many often say here the problem is the complete failure of elected members to carry out their governance role.
All of this should be written into the councils,albeit opaque,constitution.
Conduct of officers and members are subject to codes of practice.
The problem is compliance is via the local standards committee,the ombudsman and the WAO,all of whom don't seem to want to act.

Seems to me the only option is to get private eye to keep publishing this stuff until WG tire of the embarrassment.

Keanjo said...

All these problems have arisen since the advent of the new style Chief Executive who has taken over the authority of the leader of the council . Problems in local government will continue until councils revert to the old system and abolish the role of chief executive-the sooner the better.