Saturday 22 March 2014

Carmarthenshire Scandals - explanations and theories

As a Carmarthenshire County Councillor the most difficult questions I am asked at the moment are about the unlawful payments made to our chief executive, the generous support he has from the majority of Councillors meaning that he is not even formally suspended, and the reasons he was allowed to get money he was not entitled to. The sums involved are well above the average wage in this area and summary dismissal is not an uncommon fate among the more humble council staff members, and for much lesser reasons.

Mr James is a confident and charming man who many Councillors still like and admire. He attended Labour and Independent Group Meetings on a regular basis. I'm sure he became a friend and confidant to many Councillors and I can see the conflict. "How can you rob this man of his livelihood?" one independent said to me. We've sacked many lesser staff for much less, and others may say he is the one who has robbed the public?

 I also believe that many executive Councillors were happy to let their departments be run by the senior local government civil servants without much scrutiny. If they didn't, I'm told they were encouraged to look at their roles as to indicate policy only, not to manage delivery. Meryl Gravell, [Affiliated independent] the council leader until May 2012 was particularly close to Mr James, and clearly devastated by now his absence, as well as being actually responsible for these decisions up until Kevin Madge [Labour] took over, the current leader. Suddenly we are all reminded that actually, legally, its the Councillors who run the Council and "they told me to do it" is a good defense for a council officer but not so for a council leader. Explaining why the majority of my fellow Councillors have decided to keep Mr James in post is really only speculation.

Personally, I can say I was unaware of the unlawful pension payments because no ordinary Councillors were ever informed that they were going on. As for the Libel indemnity, also found to be unlawful, I was fooled by the Executive board and Mark James assertion it was all legal, as I could not believe they would openly do anything likely to be illegal. I don't know whether the executive board saw the 2008 legal advice and if they did whether they understood it? Looking at it now, its clear that the action to use the Chief Executive as a proxy to counter sue a blogger was not in any way recommended  and would be open to challenge. Many Councillors chose to believe the opinion of Mr Kerr, a barrister employed by the Council, after the payment was found to be unlawful, who was paid well to give the opposite opinion. The only good thing out of all this is that it is now more clear that Councils are not allowed to sue or counter sue for libel, and any libel indemnity given to an officer for these purposes will be ruled as unlawful by the Welsh Audit Office.

So no apologies, no public money returned and presumably no action to be taken against Mark James unless criminal charges are proved or a severance deal is accepted. For the rest of our staff, the decision to terminate employment can be made on the balance of probabilities if they are thought to have done wrong. For Chief Executives in West Wales the rules are different.  

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