"Cllr Cefin Campbell and I had submitted a Notice of Motion to next week’s meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council urging the Executive Board and Chief Executive to seek means of settling the libel issue involving Jacqui Thompson in a way which would not result in her being forced to sell her home to pay damages and costs. The NoM was drawn up with the best of intentions, in an attempt to bring a conciliatory note to a toxic issue which has dragged on for several years. I’m sorry to say that the Chair has refused to place our NoM on the Agenda. He was guided by the legal department, who e-mailed us in his name. Basically, it said we had no business to interfere in the Chief Executive’s “private and personal” affairs and legal rights. It warned that such action could constitute contempt of court. Cefin and I were also accused of showing “extreme discourtesy” to the Chair by making the Press aware of our Notice of Motion before he had time to consider it.
"For now, I will just say this.
"Many would say that the Chief Executive’s action was hardly “private and personal” as his counter-libel action was publicly funded by the Council, an indemnity deemed unlawful by the Welsh Audit Office. As regards “extreme discourtesy” shown towards the Chair, that is utter nonsense. An elected member has the democratic right to make public an intended Notice of Motion at any time. Giving the public an opportunity to discuss such NoMs – or intended NoMs – is a key part of the democratic process. Cefin and I discussed seeking independent legal opinion, but concluded that enough money has been pocketed by lawyers and barristers in this matter already. We shall leave the court of public opinion to make its own judgement for now. But this is not the end of the matter…"
The last 24 hours have brought a powerful reminder that for all the talk of reform and change in County Hall, and despite the WLGA-led review of governance, the chief executive retains a vice-like grip on the running of the council, with councillors reduced to being impotent onlookers.
The checks and balances which are supposed to prevent abuses and protect the interests of the wider public have been subverted and corrupted.
Consider this: there are currently in Carmarthenshire a number of cases involving maladministration by the council of matters ranging from the protection of vulnerable adults to planning abuses which have been rumbling on for years and years - in some cases decades. The council has done everything in its power to frustrate justice for victims whose lives have been made hell. And yet in the case of Mr James, no stone has been left unturned and no expense spared to obtain "justice" because someone called him Pinocchio and described the libel indemnity arrangements as a slush fund.
As Cllr Lenny's statement suggests, what should be a clear-cut distinction between private and public interests has become hopelessly blurred, with the whole system rigged in favour of the chief executive.
According to the Constitution, the Chair of Council's duties include the following:
To preside over meetings of the Council, so that its business can be carried out efficiently and with regard to the rights of councillors and the interests of the community.
To ensure that the council meeting is a forum for the debate of matters of concern to the local community and the place at which councillors are able to hold the executive board and committee chairs to account.
The reality is very different. In recent years there have been good, bad and indifferent occupants of the Chair. The best have tried valiantly to perform their duties, but were bullied, hectored and coerced into submission. The bad and the indifferent have been nothing more than puppets who would be out of their depth in a paddling pool. The idea that the current chair, Cllr Eryl Morgan (Labour), would "consider" a Notice of Motion or be offended by press coverage of the motion is utterly cynical.
His job is to do as he's told to protect the rights and interests of the chief executive.
The role of the Monitoring Officer is supposed to be the "ethical eyes and ears" of the council. Their three main functions are:
- to report on matters he or she believes are, or are likely to be, illegal or amount to maladministration;
- to be responsible for matters relating to the conduct of councillors and officers; and
- to be responsible for the operation of the council’s constitution.
An essential skill of the monitoring officer, which I think probably comes naturally to us as lawyers, is the ability to be seen to be fair and impartial at all times and to ensure that the appropriate processes are followed. It is important that you are able to maintain and uphold the position of fairness and transparency even when, at times, this can make you unpopular with chief officers and sometimes politicians.
In Carmarthenshire the Monitoring Officer and Head of Administration and Law is Mrs Linda Rees Jones, whose department's advice was famously described as "cavalier at best and incompetent at worst" by Sir David Lewis, a very eminent lawyer. Mrs Rees Jones was chosen by the chief executive using delegated powers to take over from her predecessor in an acting capacity. And there she remained in an acting capacity for years and years until the chief executive used other delegated powers to make her job permanent because she had carried out the role in an acting capacity for so long.
The role of Monitoring Officer is supposed to be independent of that of chief executive and is in theory one of the most important in local government. So important, in fact, that councillors would normally interview candidates and appoint the office holder themselves.
But not in Carmarthenshire.
During her long period in the job, a great deal of Mrs Rees Jones's time has been taken up by defending the chief executive and grappling with the fallout from decisions which benefited him personally.
Remember that bit about reporting on matters which she believes are, or are likely to be, illegal or amount to maladministration? Well, Mrs Rees Jones was tasked with piloting through the libel indemnity and the chief executive's pension arrangements which were both declared to be unlawful by the Wales Audit Office.
The blurring of public and private interests referred to by Mrs Rees Jones herself, the unorthodox nature of her appointment and her track record of relentless support for the chief executive's actions, mean that councillors in Carmarthenshire now find themselves in the very uncomfortable position of suspecting that the legal advice handed out by their chief legal officer and Monitoring Officer may not be as impartial and independent as it is supposed to be.
In theory, Cllr Lenny could now raise his concerns under the Constitution as an urgent item at the end of next Wednesday's meeting, but he would first have to obtain the consent of the Chair, who would inevitably reject any such request. And just to make sure, Mr James went to the trouble of removing urgent items from the meeting agenda a few years back.
If urgent items are not on the agenda, there can be no urgent items.
An observant contributor to the comments in the previous post wondered if Cllr Lenny's motion ran the risk of being in contempt of court, who would apply to the High Court to have it consider whether the compromise proposal constituted contempt.
The answer to that one would be the chief executive himself. Surely he would not have instructed his Monitoring Officer to suggest to councillors that if they defied his wishes, he would take his own council to court? Would he?