Monday 22 April 2019

Private Eye again...and a Brown Nose Award, First Class, with updates

Update 1st May;

The Council's Director of Regeneration and Policy, Wendy Walters has been promoted and appointed as the new chief executive. No surprise there.
Ms Walters was formerly one of two £100k pa Assistant Chief Executives, when one of the posts was axed in a restructuring exercise in 2017, Mr James decided to create a new Directorship, Regeneration and Policy. The £120k job was advertised as it had to be by law, but the ad disappeared a couple of days later and Ms Walters was appointed to the post.
Regime change? I think not.

Update 28th April;

And from this week's Carmarthenshire Herald.....:-)

Click to read. Link to Companies House here.

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The Rotten Boroughs column in the current issue of Private Eye features Mark James of Carmarthenshire Council fame yet again. It follows an oozing 'tribute' to the departing Mr James, penned by his former press officer and which featured recently in a local publication. 
It clearly amused the Eye:-)

The 'tribute' was, as the Eye website explains, " cloying it will make Eye readers reach for the sick bucket".

Here's the Rotten Boroughs piece;

With the forthcoming retirement, I thought a brief summary of some previous mentions in the esteemed Rotten Boroughs column would be appropriate, and to serve as a reminder of just how thoroughly Mark James has, in the words of the Eye, "trashed Carmarthenshire Council's reputation". 

All recorded for posterity on this blog;

After featuring the '#daftarrest' incident in Rotten Boroughs in June 2011, the council's notoriety was beginning to grow and by December they were awarded the runner up prize for Legal Bullies of the Year. In January 2012 the Eye covered, with some amusement, the CBE awarded to Mark James. 

In 2011, with 'Devil's Work' and again in 2012 with 'Let us Pray' the council had again caught the attention of the Eye with their generosity towards some local evangelicals with some dodgy connections. In August 2012, the shocking blackmail of a local paper saw the council back in the column and in October the council press office again featured in the Eye after failing to carry out a simple check on google. 

This all led to more Rotten Borough honours at the end of the year, with the PR Plonkers and the Hellfire Awards, no less, and with our own chief executive apparently a devout evangelical christian himself, the latter must have been especially touching. 

The Wales Audit Office and the unlawful payments were closely followed by the Eye and naturally made the Rotten Borough columns in 2013 and 2014 with the libel indemnity and the pension tax avoidance. The latter was the scam our devout Mr James also shared with the former CEO of Pembs. 

The highest accolade came in 2016 with Mark James scooping the coveted Rotten Borough's Shit of the Year Award, closely followed in March 2017, after the order for sale court hearing, with the equally memorable 'In the Gutter' piece.

Emlyn Dole made his first appearance in March 2017 with his barns and was back, as second fiddle to Mr James, in 'Shit storm', over the secretive nonsense over the libel indemnity CRWG meeting held last July.

The Wellness scandal and Mr James' retirement hasn't been missed by the Eye either, featuring in the Rotten Boroughs column in December, 'Tender spot', January 'Down the pan'  and 'Shit happens' in February.

And, as above, in April.

Whilst searching google for the purposes of this post, I landed on this parliamentary record from Hansard from March 2014. It was a scathing and indeed, a truthful attack by Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards on the "ruling cabal of senior officials" and their "political wing", the then Labour/Ind Executive Board. 

He also says, "Given the number of mentions that Carmarthenshire has had in the Private Eye “Rotten Boroughs” column, one might think that the executive board members would have got the message."

Unfortunately, the Plaid 'run' Exec Board, hasn't got the message either. 

As this blog has reported, Emlyn Dole has made sure that he and the Board have remained the chief executive's dutiful rubber stamp. And as I have said, Mr James will leave a toxic legacy when he retires, one which will be difficult to break, particularly if the next incumbent is a carefully prepared clone....

Tuesday 16 April 2019

City Deal; Neath Port Talbot threaten to pull out...and Cadno on the Carmarthenshire 'debate'.

Neath Port Talbot council's cabinet will meet tomorrow (Wed) to discuss the latest developments in the Swansea Bay City Deal. The report, for those of us used to observing Carmarthenshire council, is remarkable for two reasons.

Firstly, it is an honest, realistic and sensible appraisal, paving the way for constructive debate at cabinet and, next week, at full council level. Whilst I'm sure not everything in the NPT garden is rosy, the report, and it's not the first, is a stark contrast to the farce in Carmarthenshire, who's councillors, and public, have been drip fed misinformation, lies, secrecy, shady deals, sham reports, legal threats and car crash debates. And not just over the City Deal and wellness scandal of course.

Secondly, but perhaps in the grand scheme of things, more importantly, it states that NPT are amending their projects and are on the verge of pulling out of the whole shebang.

The report, in full here, agrees with and endorses the findings and significance of the two reports which were not controlled by Carmarthenshire, or Mr James' own lawyers, ie the UK/WG review and the Pembs-led governance report, both of which I have covered here.

"Under the JWA, the Councils agreed that they shall conduct their relationship in accordance with the following principles and others: Being open and trusting in their dealings with each other; embracing a commitment to transparency; complying with statutory access provisions; paying the utmost respect of the standing and reputation of one another; making all decisions reasonably and in good faith; and procuring that Elected Members and officers act in the best interests of the City Deal.

Recent events and both reviews raise concerns whether these principles have been adhered to..."

This, incidentally, reflects the comments made by the Chair of the ABM Health board, who Mark James is now threatening with legal action for defamation, with your money.

The report goes on to point out that despite the Deal being trumpeted as a £1.3bn opportunity, in actual fact it boils down to £16m per year, divided between four councils, roughly £4m apiece. Not insignificant but, with some tweaking of their own projects, an affordable, manageable sum available in their own capital budget. They could do it themselves without the scandals and without having to subsidise Mark James' vanity project in the Delta Lakes swamp.

The report requests permission to give the twelve month notice required to exit from the Deal if things don't progress, very rapidly, over the next couple of months, and underlines (literally underlines) that  There is a clear basis for doing so in our opinion."

Given that the Joint Working Agreement between the four councils took eighteen months and dozens of drafts to complete, with several elements still subject to disagreement, and now needs to be rejigged to accommodate the recommendations on the governance reports, it's likely to take ages and more legal bills.
Aside from that, the Wellness project is sunk, or at least back to square one, and the Swansea Uni investigations, now involving the police, could take months, or years.

"As a Council, if we cannot see a return in the short term (say, a further six months) and in the form of business case approvals then exiting these arrangements may be the only logical course of action. For the avoidance of doubt, “approvals” means precisely that. It does not mean “in principle”; subject to “further review” or other caveats or conditionality which in reality would represent many more months of inconclusive dialogue. In these circumstances, what would be gained by continuing?"

It will also be interesting to see what Pembrokeshire Council do next given that they have just one project, tied in with the Port Authority, and are also subsidising the soon to be disappearing Mark James and his scandal-riddled Wellness dream.

Which brings me back to the first point.

Compare and contrast the recent farcical 'debate' at Carmarthenshire full council last week, with the NPT report and its honesty and clarity towards elected members.
It's a tale of two councils.

As I pointed out in my last post, The death of democracy, the seventeen year dictatorship of Mark James has reduced most councillors, apart from a hardy few, most notably at the moment, Cllr Rob James, to a ridiculous collection of inward looking idiots, terrified of upsetting Mr James. As this week's excellent Cadno piece from the Carmarthenshire Herald (see below) points out, they couldn't even 'endorse' the reports, for fear of being critical of the golden goose.

It's worse than that though, as they believe the nonsense themselves. This has nothing to do with politics, but has everything to do with failing to recognising that even the basic tenets of the Nolan principles have been trashed, by their own chief executive, and failing to recognise a scandal-ridden project when it's presented to them on a plate.

Prize pillock of the week had to be Cllr Giles Morgan (Ind) who's rambling, self-absorbed attack on Rob James also included an accusation that Pembrokeshire Council acted 'unprofessionally' for the unbelievable crime of releasing the damning internal governance report to its own councillors. Rob James hit back wondering what on earth was wrong with that and at least Pembrokeshire Council had respect for its councillors. He also said that the culture in Carmarthenshire Council was sometimes "absolutely disgusting".

That would never happen in Carms, the report would have either been buried (literally perhaps), or, eventually been released months later accompanied by spin and an 'officer's report' explaining why it was all completely wrong.

Public and government confidence in the City Deal has taken a hit - not because of questions from the press, or Rob James, or anyone else, but because of the behaviour and arrogance of Mark James, and his associates, and he should be held to account. Preferably by the police.

Incidentally, another quirk of Mark James' seventeen year chairmanship of full council meetings was not to allow discussion on items 'not on the agenda', or speeches which didn't address the Motion under debate.

Unless, of course, it suited him.

This was the case on Wednesday, all engineered to attack Rob James the current fly in the chief executive's ointment. The 'debate' was a car crash led by Emlyn Dole, and overseen with silent, smug approval by Mark James.
Mission complete.

Over to Cadno:

Cadno and the old swimming hole

Cadno, being a beast himself, is all at ease with nature red in tooth and claw. Even the dumbest beast of the field is, however, able to distinguish between certain propositions.
Rabbits have it easiest of all. Eat. Go. Doe. Sow. 
If you’re a predator, things are a bit more complex. There’s the whole prey identification, stalking, patience, concealment, waiting for the right opportunity, pursuit, capture and ripping the throat out thing to deal with before concealing the food from other greedy sods who want to cash in on your hard work. 
All of that, to Cadno, appears a considerably more complex proposition that asking councillors to endorse a report which has already been endorsed by the Joint City Deal Board six days before. Such a proposition appears to be beyond members of Carmarthenshire County Council. 
We only have to look back at the loud hosannas which greeted the Acuity Legal report prepared by the CEO’s personal solicitors and the WAO report. These were triumphs for the Council. They vindicated the whole – umm - procurement process. We could rejoice that box-tickers had ticked the right boxes and that the box-tickers appointed to check how well the box-tickers had ticked those boxes had themselves ticked the right box for the Council. 
Of course, now we know that the WAO review trumpeted by the Council was no more than an outline review the WAO had planned for some time, the gilt has come a little off that gingerbread. Whereas the clean bill of health given by Acuity Legal provided valuable insight into the way Carmarthenshire County Council’s officers went about not telling other City Deal partners about their concerns regarding the Council’s private sector partners in the Wellness Village. Carmarthenshire County Council even presented its business case to the Joint City Deal Board for approval weeks after it had concluded Sterling Health were in a position to deliver jack shit. 
As Cadno observed when Acuity Legal’s report was published, its content was notable because of what it inadvertently revealed about the Council’s internal processes and the lengths its officers were prepared to go to reveal less than the whole truth to the Council’s valued partners in the City Deal. 
The Council was sure to sing its own praises loud and clear. 
It is not so keen, however, to discuss those reports published after those two reports which dealt only with how well officers followed the procurement rules. 
The UK and Welsh Government pointed out with some force that the governance of the City Deal was a mess. It said there was a lack of transparency and lack of trust. It noted that some business cases were poor. The Pembrokeshire report was less restrained. 
So, readers, when St Giles of Swiss Valley pings one at the Welsh Government and its UK counterpart for not divvying up the dosh tout-de-bloody-suite – as he did on Wednesday – it suggests that he has failed one of the key tests for any councillor expressing an opinion on a complex topic. Namely, try reading stuff first. He might then conclude that with tens of millions of pounds of public money at stake abject failures in governance, scrutiny, and planning might give any public body pause. Similarly, if Carmarthenshire’s officers rescued the City Deal – as Giles Morgan claimed – given what has been revealed about the Deal’s governance, it might be time to reflect that throwing a drowning man a life preserver made of concrete is not really progress. But let’s pass by Giles’ outrage at everything and everyone he wants to score a cheap point against. 
Let’s go back to the beginning. The motion asked councillors to endorse the reports prepared on behalf of the City Deal Board by consultants that were not appointed by Carmarthenshire County Council and by Pembrokeshire County Council working with officers of all the other local authorities involved. That included officers from Carmarthenshire. 
What those reports say is not important for the purposes of this article. Besides, what they say has been reported previously in this newspaper and many others. 
Here is what is important: the Council was being asked to endorse them.
‘Endorse (verb with an object). To declare one's public approval or support of [object]’ – at least according to the OED. 
So, the Council was being asked to publicly approve the reports and their call for a revision of governance structures and the webcasting of meetings. 
This was surely uncontroversial stuff. 
Well, not quite. You see, criticism of the governance structures would impliedly be a criticism of the Sacred Cow that has become the leadership of Mark James CeeBeebies. 
And, loyally, semantically, obnoxiously, Emlyn Dole was having none of it. It was not the Council’s place to publicly approve the reports. It was a matter for the Board. Webcasting was the responsibility of Neath Port Talbot Council. Nothing was Carmarthenshire’s responsibility. Giving every impression of a man who cannot see a belt without hitting below it, Emlyn swung a few predictable low blows at the Labour leader. 
This is what it has come to, readers. If you accept the logic underpinning Emlyn Dole’s words, the Council is unable to express its opinion on anything if anyone else is involved. 
Unless it’s the Health Board. Or the Welsh Government. Or the UK Government. Or any subject the Great Deflector thinks won’t bounce back on him. However, Emlyn Dole did no more than reflect the complete self-absorption of councillors with the Wellness scheme and very little else outside it – a view expressed trenchantly some months ago by the leader of Neath Port Talbot Council, Rob Jones. 
They were not being asked to consider the Wellness Project, but the City Deal. However, what Chair Mansel Davies allowed them to discuss was none of that malarkey.
It was ‘Chew on Rob James Day’ and Mansel wasn’t going to let anybody who wanted a go on the ride to miss out. 
It was entertaining for all the wrong reasons. This was car crash council: members were unable to debate the real issues and focused on personal abuse and score-settling. Andre McPherson's observation that councillors were not in the schoolyard would have been unnecessary if the Chair was controlling the debate adequately. Or at all.
In a debate in which councillors could have simply said: ‘Well, yes, we agree mistakes have been made but let’s look forward and not back’, they collectively jumped into a shallow pool of wet bullshit and went for a paddle. Giles Morgan practised his butterfly. 
There was a massive £1.4bn pound elephant in the Council Chamber. Sadly, too many councillors were intent on protecting the Golden Calf in the CEO’s seat.

Friday 12 April 2019

The death of democracy; the legacy of Mark James

This blog has concentrated, in recent months, on the chief executive's most recent achievements in the boggy field of regeneration, namely his shady deals surrounding the Wellness Village and his almost single-handed destruction of the £1.3bn City Deal. Let's hope the police are closing in. We hope, also, that something can be salvaged from his poisoned legacy, and that the private healthcare facilities and the holistic therapy pods don't join the growing herd of white elephants scattered across the high plains of Carmarthenshire.

However, no tribute to the retiring Mark James would be complete without a brief synopsis, and a few examples, of his attempts to destroy all traces of democracy in Carmarthenshire, an equally astounding feat.

For any self-respecting control freak, the first step to dictatorship is to ensure that those wielding the rubber stamp of democracy are securely in your pocket. For Mr James this couldn't have got off to a better start than with his appointment by former council leader Meryl Gravell, seventeen years ago. Meryl, of course, was a woman after his own heart, and blinded to the fact that he'd left behind a disastrous stadium venture and serious criminal allegations in far away Boston, Lincolnshire.

He couldn't have asked for a better buddy than the equally poisonous Meryl; she who poured public scorn on councillors who exhibited 'weakness' by listening to parents' concerns over school closures; she who called campaigners against hospital closures 'rabble'; she who blamed 'her and Mark's' problems at the council on the laziness of 9000 council staff. Lovely woman.

It seems that Mr James exerted almost complete control over a largely benign set of councillors from the start. This control was exerted through a combination of bullying, threats, promises of 'power', and naturally, extra cash. The latter in the form of lucrative Executive Board places, Chairs of committees, leaderships etc, achieved through the form of Mad Meryl and her merry band of Independents always holding the 'balance' of power. In truth, the balance of power went no further than the Presidential Suite.
Even Emlyn Dole fell for it.

Gullible and largely spineless councillors are also easy prey for misleading advice, and downright lies, articulated without a shred of conscience by Mr James and his legal squad. A particularly good example of this, though there have been many, including the nonsense spun over the Wellness scandal, was the misleading report, and great big whopping lie to the executive board about handing libel damages over to the council.
The promise couldn't have been further from Mr James' mind as he headed for his lawyers clutching his illegal blank cheque. He even co-authored the report and stayed in the exec board meeting just to make sure they did his bidding. No matter how you dress it up in corporate jargon, this was fraud, pure and simple. And theft.

Similarly, his tax avoidance wheeze was decided behind closed doors with a profoundly misleading Minute as the only record that the seedy and unlawful arrangement had been made.

Mr James has not repaid the £55,176 in stolen cash, the sum identified in the public interest reports, back to the council. That's without the rest of it he's blown. Is he going to be allowed to walk, and get away with daylight robbery, or are the police going to be gatecrashing his retirement do and charging him with theft, like they would anyone else? Perhaps I should ask them...

The next step in the road to local government tin-pot dictatorship is the elimination of opposition, be it political, or the people, whistleblowers or the forces of regulation, media and law, engendering a toxic culture of fear and secrecy. And with each subsequent Monitoring Officer/Head of Legal, director, or Chief Constable securely in his pocket, and a tightly controlled, over-resourced press office at his disposal, he could get away with anything.

I have been reliably informed, over the years that Mr James gave clear instructions to news editors that things would be done his way, he also courted new arrivals with the aim to control editorial output, partly under the threat of withdrawal of council advertising. This form of blackmail culminated in the threat being carried out against one local paper.
It was not just this method though, he made complaints about editors' 'negative' press coverage to the owners of those newspapers and insisted, by phone calls to editors, that nosy reporters withdraw requests for information on expenses and associated public expenditure.
He has also lied to the press, and, for that matter, the courts.
An attempt by Plaid, at the time, to bring their concerns about 'Freedom of the Press' up for debate was blocked by the chief executive himself and delegated instead to a secret meeting between the then manager of the press office, and Cllr Pam Palmer, Meryl's partner in crime.

His introduction of the unlawful libel indemnity clause in 2008 was a deeply sinister, direct threat to anyone investigating the nether regions of local government. He'd set up, what appeared to be, his own slush fund.

Occasionally, the pliant band of councillors would be joined by one or two who refused to 'assume the position' that Mr James demanded. One such councillor was Sian Caiach who had the temerity to start asking some awkward question over the direction this council was taking. The immediate response was for Mr James to restrict her right to information, then report her to the Ombudsman. This failed miserably, as did his later complaint last year. His control (shin-kicking, it has been said) over the Chair of council meant that any 'outspoken' councillors were swiftly silenced during the phoney debates.
This control has also extended to threatening all elected members with action for contempt of court for trying to table a motion relating to his unlawfully funded libel claim.

Some councillors, including Sian, tried to bring the more controversial aspects of his control freakery, such as the filming ban, to the council chamber on the form of Motions on notice. Mr James' response to this was to change the number of signatories to a Motion from the usual two, to a whopping seven. It was not until the damning 'toxic culture' governance report from the WLGA, and its thirty-nine recommendations, that this was put back to the normal levels. The report also triggered the reappearance of 'public questions', something Mr James thought he's nipped in the bud back in 2005.

The WLGA were greeted by Mr James with barely concealed contempt "to show them how things are done in Carmarthenshire...". Their final report was thrown into the long grass for several months, and a new committee (CRWG) formed to mangle the recommendations into something acceptable to Mr James. Plaid's promise of a new era of transparency fell at the first hurdle.

It was not just political debate which became skewed and ignored by Mr James but the advice of his own senior officers. One notorious example was the sale of a car park at Parc Y Scarlets, where the proper division of spoils to the benefit of the long suffering taxpayer, as advised by the Finance Director, was rubbished by Mr James who decided to ensure that this private company received this bung to clear a few debts. It was remarkable.

Eventually, the witchcraft of the interweb, the growth of social media and those irritating 'blogsites' began to expose the Victorian parlour council chamber, and its peculiar workings, for what it was. And FOI requests were on the increase. The secrecy by default now had to be actively defended. The unwelcome appearance of members of the public in the gallery with mobile phones, (well, me) was dealt with by calls to the police, arrests, the locking of fire doors and the signing of quasi-legal undertakings. The eventual compromise of webcasting still restricts the recording of meetings to those few already webcast by the council.

As other voices joined the growing band of 'malcontents' and 'scurrilous' bloggers, most notably Private Eye, the Herald, and a politician or two, Mr James attempted to resort to the military wing of his regime, namely the police. His complaint of harassment against me, which, in the event, failed miserably, included such gems as the Shit of the Year Award 2016 from Private Eye. Not that he got in touch with Private Eye of course, they've got a bigger team of lawyers than him. I recall my growing incredulity as the various 'allegations' unfolded as the police interview progressed. Even the interviewing copper looked bemused, shall we say.

Another of Mr James' habits, apart from illegally pocketing tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money, was to use council resources and staff for his own private purposes. Eight members of staff were disciplined for using council computers for their own private use, but not Mr James. In pursuing his own private vendettas, including preparing material for the police, which would have cost anyone else a stiff bill from a solicitor, he has treated County Hall, and its staff, most notably his legal squad, as one big freebie.

Whether he has used council facilities to further his own private business interests in Cardiff Bay, or even his role in the Kuwait project, we don't know. What we do know is that he didn't bother entering these extra-curricular activities in the register of interests, and head of law/monitoring officer Linda Rees Jones was complicit in these omissions. In fact, she's been complicit in all of it since 2011 but as she owes her £100k position to Mr James, rather than the proper democratic channel, I guess it's hardly surprising...

The latest nonsense, with the appointment of his own lawyers, Acuity Law to provide himself with nothing short of a publicly funded defence over the Wellness scandal, is a prime example of his total arrogance. Eyebrows have indeed been raised but appear to have been shot down in legal flames.

As I have said, in seventeen years Mr James has created and sustained a toxic culture, anyone who has dared raise an eyebrow has been castigated as a 'troublemaker', had their emails tracked, been subjected to legal or financial threats, temper tantrums, or risked their position, for which they must of course be grateful to Mr James. Regulators such as the audit office and the Ombudsman have been treated with contempt, as has anyone who has lodged a serious complaint.

The majority of councillors, whilst being generally kept in the dark, have been complicit by allowing this situation to continue. Many will be glad to see him go, councillors and staff, but it's a pity they waited all this time and sat back while he slowly but surely destroyed democracy, made the lives of many a living misery, and trashed the reputation of Carmarthenshire Council. A council being officer-led is bad enough, but one dominated by a psychopath is a whole lot worse. The next chief executive, who is due to be appointed at the beginning of May will have his or her work cut out to end the ingrained toxic culture once and for all. Let's hope it's a turning point.

The council should also consider changing from the currently dysfunctional Executive Board system to the Committee style of decision making, the former, led by an arrogant and bullying chief executive, has rendered the majority of councillors superfluous to requirements.

In a few weeks, after his recent flurry of council funded legal threats, Mark James CBE, a liar, a thief, and a thoroughly vindictive individual, will walk off scot free with his pension, along with, I have to say, his monthly 'gutter' money and the keys to my home. But whether he treads the usual path to lucrative consultancy, or joins a Bible group in the Outer Hebrides, Caebrwyn has unfinished business and justice to seek, and will be right there behind him. Figuratively speaking of course...
That's a promise.
And I don't think I'll be the only one.

For background, please search the blog.