Saturday 22 May 2021

Emlyn's folly - the Carmarthen 'Gateway' sign

Whilst most of us are struggling to pay council tax, put food on the table, and local businesses are trying to keep heads above water, Carmarthenshire Council are spending nearly £350,000 on a sign. The structure, currently being constructed on the outskirts of Carmarthen has caused considerable controversy, and anger. 
It's not just the cost, which also, apparently, includes a few benches and sculptures on the nearby Morfa Wetlands, it's a dangerous distraction to drivers along the busy and accident prone A40. 

Also, by any stretch of the imagination, it looks bloody awful. The result of some brainstorming session that went horribly wrong. That's just my personal opinion, and I'm not averse to public art, but as 'gateway signage' goes (the terminology is used to justify the enormous expense), I've seen better.
And if nothing else, the timing is not great.

Sensing something of a backlash over the cost, Emlyn Dole and the press office have been hurriedly spinning the yarn that it's part of a wider scheme and part-funded from EU community grants, Rural Development funds and section 106 money, as if it all just fell out of the sky, hoping no one realises that it's all public cash.  The rest of it is coming from council funds. This does nothing to enhance or help the local community, by any EU standards, and using Section 106 money? From where?
Playgrounds, school facilities please, not a vanity project and a photo opportunity for Emlyn Dole.
They're currently being shy with the actual cost breakdown.

It has, naturally, been several years in the making, involving consultants, designers, artists, manufacturers etc, none of which, I notice, come from anywhere near Carmarthenshire. The designers are from north Wales and the company making the letters resides in Yorkshire. It is, apparently, a sculpture, not just a sign.

Under construction

Artist's impressions of finished sign
Pics from Carmarthen Journal

The finished sign! Oh dear....and it runs parallel to the A40 
(Pic source; Media Wales)

All views welcome.

Update 1st June
As per my comment below, the council have finally said that this sign cost £136,000. Or that's how much they'll admit to anyway. Absolutely shocking. Whoever signed this off, and decided it was a great use of public money needs to be relieved of their duties immediately. 

Friday 21 May 2021

No slush fund at Bristol City Council...

Events over the bridge, at Bristol City Council, have caught Caebrwyn’s attention. It seems that two of the city’s councillors are being sued for libel by two senior council officers. I am not familiar, nor particularly interested in the parties involved, nor the allegations made. The details were published here by the Bristol Post, which has also seen the full video of the heated meeting, which has now disappeared from the council website.

City Hall, Bristol

Caebrwyn’s first thought, given what has happened in Carmarthenshire, was whether Bristol City Council, ie the taxpayers, were funding the claims. I emailed the press office who soon confirmed, categorically, that no, they weren’t.
"We can confirm that the Council is not funding these claims."
 This means, obviously, that the officers were funding it themselves, or maybe using a Conditional Fee Agreement (no win, no fee).

Very interesting.

One wonders whether the officers had considered the possibility of council funding. Or that the council had taken a look at that possibility and decided that no, they couldn't, it would have simply been unlawful.

The words they’re complaining about were allegedly made during, and relate to, the course of their employment. Had they been senior officials of Carmarthenshire Council, Leader Emlyn Dole, head of legal Linda Rees Jones and the cabal would have been tripping over each other to offer blank cheques, regardless of the truth, or the consequences to the taxpayer.

Bristol City Council seemed to have taken a different view to our own villains in County Hall. They have taken the correct legal view.

County Hall, Carmarthen

It is, as I have said, prohibited under legislation for public authorities to indemnify officers’ libel claims. A view reinforced by the Wales Audit Office in 2014 who deemed the indemnity given to former council CEO Mark James CBE to fund a counterclaim for libel as unlawful. 

Both Mr James and Ms Rees Jones should have been sacked for gross misconduct there and then. (readers new to this blog might be interested to know that Mr James has recently been under criminal investigation for accepting offers of £mms in bribes from a company in Kent, whilst he was CEO.  And there's nothing 'allegedly' about it)

Mark James

Ms Rees Jones, and of course Mr James have tried, for many years, to find loopholes to justify their unlawful actions concerning libel indemnities. There is plenty about all this on the blog. The latest round of desperate barrel-scraping by the reckless Ms Rees Jones is to claim that the Executive Board have the power to dish out libel threats on behalf of officers under a vague ‘duty of care’ personnel function.
This is despite the threat of judicial challenge by the Auditor General for Wales.

Linda Rees Jones, Head of Law

This argument was rejected years ago, not only is there the necessity for full and robust democratic debate and scrutiny, but local authorities have other, less chilling means, such as well-stuffed press offices, to deflect allegations, unwarranted or otherwise. Using public money to sue the public is not an option.
It would be unheard of for a council to be found liable for failing to provide a duty of care by not issuing libel claims on employees’ behalf.

I would doubt if these cases will get very far, given the circumstances, but what do I know. Whether the claims would meet the higher demands of the 2013 Defamation Act remains to be seen. It is notable perhaps that the libel claims, and code of conduct complaints against the two 'troublesome' councillors appeared within a couple of hours of each other, a co-ordinated attack perhaps.

Whilst bringing a claim for libel with public money is banned, defending one with taxpayers' cash isn’t. I understand that the Bristol councillors have already instructed expert counsel. Observers might want to make enquiries, out of interest, as to who might be paying for that. So far, letters of claim have been issued, but it won’t take long for bills to reach eye-watering levels.

As it stands, the fact that these council officers are acting in a personal capacity, without the bottomless pit of taxpayers’ money must be a lesson to Carmarthenshire Council, who remain unique in their capacity, determination and enthusiasm to unlawfully sue their critics, with your money.

Thursday 6 May 2021

The slush fund - the 2020 CRWG meetings

Last week I finally received copies of the minutes from two of the meetings held in private last year to discuss the fate of the unlawful libel indemnity clause. 

Readers of this blog will recall that back in July 2018 at a meeting of the held-behind-closed-doors cross-party Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) it was decided, by Plaid Cymru to try and reinstate the then suspended and unlawful Libel Indemnity Clause (the Mark James slush fund) back into the Constitution. An unbelievable decision.

The slush fund clause, unique to Carmarthenshire Council, was to fund officers' libel claims, or counterclaims, with taxpayers' money, all of which is clearly prohibited under 2006 legislation. Mark James was still in post in July 2018 so in full control, although he was probably getting sidetracked with his fraudulent arrangement with Clement, Dickmann and co by then....

The unlawful clause had been suspended since 2014 when the Wales Audit Office found that the funding of Mr James legal fees by the taxpayer was unlawful.

As James knew full well at the time he was bankrolled, in 2012, that it was unlawful, he hedged his bets by getting the then Executive Board to rubber stamp his slush fund. He remained in the meeting to ensure the deed was done, which was also unlawful. He also sweetened the Executive Board by promising, in writing, that he'd pay it back if he won any damages. He never did.

Despite this, Mark James and his personal legal minder, head of legal Linda Rees Jones, who also doubles-up as Monitoring Officer (personally appointed by James) continued to claim it was lawful. They should, in fact, have both been sacked for gross misconduct.

Emlyn 'two barns' Dole, once deeply opposed to the clause and the specific funding of  Mr James, when in opposition, fulfilled his end of the power deal with Mr James by doing a U-turn, and was now fully supporting his paymaster.

Moving to the July 2018 meeting, Labour leader Rob James had suggested the clause be removed completely. However, as I said, the Plaid majority (ie Mark James and Linda Rees Jones...) had other ideas and wanted it reinstated  - to remove it exposed that thorny problem of finally admitting they'd acted illegally. 

Plaid Cymru leader Emlyn Dole even wanted it extended so senior councillors, like himself, could dip into this slush fund if they so desired.

At the July 2018 meeting it was eventually decided to write to the Auditor General for Wales for his blessing, with fingers crossed that he'd now changed his mind.

Two and a half years then passed during which time Linda, on behalf of Mark's reputation and her career, wrote two lengthy, detailed pleading letters to the Auditor General. Both of which received sound rejections. He also warned them of potential legal challenges should they try it again.

Eventually, in August 2020 CRWG met again. Ms Rees Jones had no choice other than to relay the grim news from the Auditor General to the assembled CRWG. 

She was clearly starting to panic over the prospect of her dishonest, misleading advice to the High Court, and councillors, being very publicly exposed. 

If they decided to remove the clause she insisted that it be made VERY CLEAR "that it was being done as part of the process of tidying up the constitution and not because it was unlawful in any way".  

No, not unlawful in any way AT ALL. What a joke.

Emlyn was worried that if it was removed, they wouldn't be able to sue anyone with taxpayers' money. Linda had come up with a plan though and assured him that it made no difference, if the unlawful delegated power WAS removed....they could just switch it to a power of the Executive Board! No worries Emlyn! We'll continue to ignore the fact it's illegal!

Anyway, as if this hadn't gone on long enough, they then went away to their political groups to discuss the options. Remove it, reinstate it, or the Rees-Jones Option to move it quietly to a power of the Executive Board.

The next meeting was held in September 2020.

Linda was by now in meltdown, with the spirit of Mark James, if not the person himself, breathing over her shoulder. 

If it was to be removed completely, A JOINT STATEMENT must be issued making sure her, and his back was covered.

"If a decision is made to remove the clause then that should be done with two provisos (1) it should be made perfectly clear that members will wholeheartedly support officers in any case of defamation and (2) it should be made absolutely clear that it in no way undermines members’ support of the Head of Administration and Law and that members’ support for her remains steadfast"

Remarkably, they were all sent away to discuss it yet again with their political groups. 

By now though there was the Rees-Jones Option, to slip the clause into the Exec Board's power instead and save face and reputations. Unfortunately this was still illegal. Not that this bothered Ms Rees Jones.

Prior to the full council meeting held on October 10th, CRWG had a 10 minute meeting on the 1st October and decided to move the offending item to the Executive Board powers. The Plaid and Independent contingent of CRWG had a majority anyway. No objections were going to get a look in. Job done.

The whole idea of a statement fizzled out. For two reasons; a) they hadn't removed the clause, just moved it and, b) Why attract any more publicity to this notorious business than was absolutely necessary.

"All four political Groups confirmed in turn that they supported relieving officers of the delegated authority of determining applications for such indemnities, with a view to the function being exercised by the Executive Board, as indeed had happened on the one occasion to date when such an indemnity had been granted.

Members expressed their support for officers and the unacceptability of some of the treatment that they have to endure and asked that it be explained how officers and members could be supported should any issue arise in the future, as it has in the past."

What should have been glaringly obvious was that the 'one occasion' the Executive Board rubber stamped an indemnity, it had been found to be unlawful.

The whole idea that they were circumventing the Derbyshire Rule, let alone risking millions of pounds of taxpayers money was quietly ignored by Plaid and the Independents, under the dishonest advice of Linda Rees Jones, and the influence of the now departed Mark James.
Still, why worry about trifles of legality or squandering taxpayers money.

You will note the second paragraph from the minutes. There appears to be confusion between unwarranted abuse, and valid and robust criticism. It's so much easier just to attack critics, or turn a blind eye, or sit there twiddling your thumbs when, to give just one example, your chief officer is accepting £mms in bribes from a developer.

Not only were Mark and Linda's professional reputations on the line over this clause but Mark James was awarded £25k+ damages, via his illegally funded counterclaim because I labelled it a slush fund. Which is exactly what it is. 
Hence the reason why they will never admit that they'd acted illegally, or god forbid, agree with the Wales Audit Office.
The amount has since doubled due to interest and enforcement. 

To say that Plaid Cymru have been a disappointment is an understatement. As I said in my previous post, the expectation that they would right the wrongs of the old Labour/Independent lot fizzled out as soon as it became clear that Dole was simply a weak puppet of Mark James and his poisonous, criminal legacy.

One hoped that senior figures in politics, who knew the score, knew what was right, and had their own run ins with the former CEO, may have intervened. 
Any previous attempts, however mild, were blocked by Mark James' legal threats, from defamation to contempt of court or by abusing his power and interfering with the democratic process. He can't do that now though, so there is no excuse not to act. 
Interestingly, he never had a go at Private Eye, despite his numerous appearances, including the crowning accolade of Shit of the Year 2016. He preferred to pick on local politicians and Llanwrda housewives... 

This post, from December 2019 still rings true; Plaid Cymru - and the rotten legacy of Mark James