Sunday 31 May 2015

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose?

Carmarthenshire County Council has a new look. Plaid Cymru has replaced Labour as the leading coalition party with the Affiliated Independents. Their mission statement is to bring CCC up to a high standard of openness and transparency; take that with as many grains of salt as you deem fit.

Carmarthenshire County council is run on the Executive Board System, much like the Westminster and Assembly governments. A small group of elected members make all of the general management and financial decisions. They do submit big things, the budget being the biggest one, for general approval by all the councillors, but a lot can be hidden in detail. Some things are just plain hidden.

The two unlawful payments in Carmarthenshire found by the Wales Audit Office were approved by the Executive board.

The Council Executive wanted to get around the fact that any arm of government, councils included, cannot use libel actions against their critics. This is obviously to preserve free speech. The Executive board at CCC were persuaded that a legal loophole existed, so they backed the chief executive to sue one critical blogger as their proxy to shut her up (and, presumably, to make an example of her).

The first one was presented to the Council, not hidden, but misrepresented. I suspect that the Executive Board had a moment of collective madness. Either because they were lazy and overwhelmed by their hatred of bloggers criticising their actions, or because they trusted the chief executive so overwhelmingly they did not read the legal report by independent legal expert Mr Goudie, blindly accepting the officer's claim that it gave the green light to their actions.

Had they actually read the report they would have realised that it did not endorse this action, in fact it gave the opinion that this tactic was never likely to be justified. However, the Chief executive and the executive board presented this as a legal and reasonable course of action and like sheep they all followed, trusting that they could not have been told barefaced lies by their most senior officers and leading councillors. I do wonder how much they can be blamed, after all, I am a former shepherd myself, and I know exactly what happens to sheep who don't docilely comply with their masters.

In the second case, it was a secret pay rise for the Chief Executive. In this case the executive members appear to have been aware that they were doing something rather naughty. The decision to give Mr James an extra payment on top of his salary was completely hidden despite the fact that to push it through all of the executive must have been complicit.

Cllr Meryl Gravell, was the leader of the Council at the time of the decisions and the chair of these meetings. Meryl knew that she had secretly given Mr James a pay rise of public money around 30k. It is impossible, given her position and authority, that she could not notice. She was therefore primarily responsible for both the unlawful payments.

Plaid has agreed to give the independents half of the Executive board seats even though their own group membership is much bigger than the Affiliated Independents. They have also agreed to accept all of the AI's sitting exec members, including the formidable Mrs Gravell. Plus ça change?

The new Plaid leader, Emlyn Dole, has made a lot of his policy to promote honesty, openness and accountability. So obviously we won't be expecting to be having any more unlawful payments as long as he is kept in the loop. I'm hoping that the Plaid executive members will be less open to being fooled and manipulated than their Labour counterparts and that they can keep the AI in check. Good luck to them!

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