Monday, 13 February 2017

Plaid's Poison Chalice -The Leadership of Carmarthenshire County Council

New Dawn in the Garden of Wales or just Old Hat?
As Plaid Cymru in Carmarthenshire launch their campaign for the 2017 May elections you would believe that they have turned around a dodgy council and have an exemplary record of governance.The Truth is not so glossy. Privately some Plaid Cymru Councillors admit that they are hamstrung by the Coalition agreement in which they gave the much smaller Affiliated Independent Group equal power in numbers on the Council's Executive and therefore in decision making.The AI group have been the driving force in every administration since the Council was formed, Although Emlyn Dole has the title of Leader, and the  Leader's large salary, he clearly does not have the power. Neither did the Labour party who "led " the previous administration. The affiliated independents somehow manage to retain their power and continue to gift public money, land and opportunity to their "friends", The local equivalent of a Sicilian Cartel, as it has been described.

It was an AI led executive board that decided to fund a libel action against local blogger Jacqui Thompson. A "Labour led" executive board then endorsed the policy and a Plaid one has changed its previous stance to also support this project. Mrs Thompson  has recently received a letter giving her a court date to recover libel damages owned to Carmarthenshire County Council's Chief Executive Mr Mark James. The only way she can produce the damages is by the sale of her half of the family home in Llanwrda. This is all perfectly legal. Mr James has been  financed in a libel action by the Council and was awarded the damages in the high court after being criticised in Mrs Thompson's blog.

The Council's Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones has apparently told the major Council Political Groups that any Councillor who attempts to interfere with the process of Mr James extracting his damages, eg. by suggesting he takes the payment in modest instalments instead of forcing the sale of her home, risks that such action would be contempt of court. However, I am sceptical of this advice as Mr James clearly undertook to donate any damages to the Council to cover his legal costs, which the Council have already paid in full.

As an elected member of said Council I feel I have an interest in not making a family homeless in order just to provide funds more quickly for this council. I have asked Mr James whether or not he intends to give the money to the Council as promised and he has declined to reply. I shall therefore assume that the undertakings listed in the minutes of the Executive board meeting of 23rd January 2012 stand, and the money from  the damages is being collected to give back to the Council. If this is not the plan then Mr Mark James has questions to answer about his own integrity.

 I have yet to meet a local voter who holds that the Thompson family should lose their home
in order to recover a debt to the Council immediately rather than in instalments.

All this results from the  decision of the County Council's Executive Board to fund Mr James to fight this libel action .A further charge of £190,000 for legal costs has been put on Mrs Thompson's half of the house by the County Council. Both sums cannot be recovered, There is still a mortgage to pay on the property and it has an agricultural tie.,The judge in this second case firmly advised the Council to not spend further public money on the project of extracting cash from someone who does not have it. Mr James still seems to want his pound of flesh and is stubbornly not revealing whether or not his deal with his sponsors, the Council, still holds.

 Mr James has priority on any proceeds from the sale and he has, in theory, the legal right to apply to make the family homeless, just as the County Council could well be forced to re-home them at considerable expense,

Many councils have rather negative blog posts written about them. I've done a good few personally and its hardly something out of the ordinary. Usually, if someone objects to what is written the blogger will remove it, especially on the threat of legal action. Unfortunately Mr James did not read Mrs Thompson's blog .Only when it was examined retrospectively after Mrs Thompson started a case against the Council initiated by Mr James' comments on another blog, were the libellous mentions of "Pinocchio" and "slush fund" noted.

Mr James has been perfectly legally awarded damages on the grounds of persecution by Mrs Thompson. Councillor Emlyn Dole has reminded me of this and also that although the Wales Audit Office considered the funding of Mr James' case against her "unlawful", he does not agree with this WAO judgement, as it has not been tested in a court of law. In opposition he did not have these doubts. As Council leader, he has changed his mind.

In Carmarthenshire County Council there seems a general policy that decisions are not open to variation or interpretation despite events or new information. The Council is governed by the decrees of the Executive board and even these are often secret. The discreet extra pension payments to Mark James are a case in point. Only being stopped on the instruction of the WAO and would still be being paid if an eagle eyed member of the public had not spotted an unexplained increase in the already generous salary of our chief executive and reported it. The AI/Labour exec board of the time knew all about it and didn't even tell their own back benchers. The minutes of that meeting were deliberately misleading to hide that action.

 All Governments are said to be a balance of legitimacy and coercion. We accept a government of any sort, monarchy, democracy, dictatorship etc. because we believe it is socially appropriate and legitimate. The coercion is various rules, laws, threats and punishments .Many governments find it useful to inflict exemplary discipline on dissidents as an attempt to discourage others. In this case it was  originally Labour and Independent Councillors who decided to punish a blogger who dared to ask for filming of public meetings, using a quarter of a million pounds of public money just to save face. Are they ashamed? Of course not, this is Carmarthenshire and they believe they were completely justified.

 Pity poor Emlyn Dole who has to play the well scripted end game of this sad saga  in return for his "leadership" of Carmarthenshire Council Council. His motivation is not clear. I honestly don't know.

 Plaid have the largest number of County Councillors in Carmarthenshire, but somehow numerical advantage has only been used to support another party and the status quo.

However, as County Council Elections often relate to the position of the National Parties and not the performance of individual Councillors and Leaders, Plaid may still end up the largest group. Tragically they may take this result as an endorsement on how well they have "run" the council and remain the puppets of others.

Siân Caiach

Carmarthenshire Council Leader  Emlyn Dole,
Did he read the coalition agreement before signing it?
Following a letter from Councillor Dole clarifying the facts I have removed a sentence from  the blog above. Councillor Dole wishes it to be known that neither he or his wife have ever applied for any public funding as rumoured. His retrospective planning permission did pass with support from the Affiliated Independents, but he wishes to make it clear that he has never attempted to fix any planning committee's decision.