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.


Sian Caiach said...

No worries about the new chief executive as Plaid have said that he/she will be native Welsh speaking Presumably, therefore, a very decent person and not capable of the shenanigans we have had to put up with from a first language English speaker?

My deep concern is the culture that has been operating for the past 17 years in this County council and how long it will take to change? Quite a job and a lot for just one person, I suspect.

Anonymous said...

That says it all, doesn't it? And it needs to be said loudly and to as large an audience as possible...!

Anonymous said...

As a nationalist welsh speaker i dont give a dam if the CE of CCC speaks Welsh or not. What i want is an honest broker who will have empathy with the language and support and promote it. But most of all a person of integrity and vision and principal. Hell most of Plaid's councillors speak the lingo of heaven but it doesnt make them honest does it, or give them a backbone? Look at Rev Emlyn Dole

Blodwen said...

Well said, Anon@21.31 - integrity, vision and empathy (and perhaps common sense?) have got to be the basic requirements for the next CEO.

Anonymous said...

Do you REALLY think our councillors are intellectually capable of making this appointment? After the last time and the results from that, I am not brimming over with any confidence in them at all. What if we end up with another"MJ"? (Heaven forbid!)

Redhead said...

I'm afraid just about every council CEO in the UK thinks he/she has a divine right to rule AND thinks councillors are there to frustrate this. Given the fact that CCC ruling councillors have been under his thumb for years they are unlikely to be able to choose the right person.

caebrwyn said...

Latest rumour on the shortlist for the next CEO is three internal candidates and one external candidate. As this is unconfirmed, we'll leave the names out for now.

Anonymous said...

Sad but inevitable. Nobody with a brain, integrity or both would even consider it.
The culture is embedded, those that remain have much to lose.
Nothing will fundamentally change until ccc is broken up.

Anonymous said...

WG need to intervene and put an interim in to sort out governance before a permanent appointment can be considered.
That would take 12 months and need the support of an intervention board.

Redhead said...

WG need to do a deep, snap audit before he goes.

Elderly Neil. said...

I have followed the eventualities you have pursued in your blog. Undoubtedly carmarthenshire has been well served by your continued contribution from this source. I have not understood how this despicable individual has got away with so much up to this stage.My frustration is now assuaged by these latest developments when the criminality that has heretofore been unchecked will all be revealed and retribution dispensed through FULL LEGAL PROCESS in the manner of full reimbursement to all plaintiffs.

Anonymous said...

I'm reliably informed that we will not be seeing the back of MJ in June - he apparently intends to stay in Carmarthen and build on one of the last green fields in town. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.