Friday, 9 December 2016

Contempt

Following the rejection of his Notice of Motion (NoM) calling for a compromise to settle Carmarthenshire County Council's action against Jacqui Thompson, Cllr Alun Lenny (Plaid) has issued the following statement:

"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. 
Here is a Monitoring Officer from the London Borough of Southwark describing her role in Local Government Lawyer:

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.


And finally....


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?

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Common sense versus revenge

Update 8 December

Keen Kremlin watchers have noticed that the published agenda for next week's meeting does not include either Cllr Lenny's motion or Cllr Caiach's question. Although the press had previously reported that the motion had been accepted for debate, it seems the Executive Suite in County Hall had other ideas, and the hapless "Chair" of the council has refused to accept either the motion or the question having received advice from the council's Head of Law (appointed by Mr James, rather conveniently) to the effect that they could be in contempt of court.

Any readers with a legal background may wish to comment on this interpretation. A useful guide to contempt in civil proceedings can be found here.

___________________
(a)


There is at last a glimmer of hope that common sense and basic human decency will prevail in the Jacqui Thompson case.

The BBC and the press are reporting that two of the most senior and widely respected councillors, Alun Lenny (Plaid) and Cefin Campbell (Plaid) have submitted a motion proposing that the Thompsons should be allowed to stay in their home, with the council refraining from forcing a sale of the property.

According to the Carmarthen Journal, which has the most detailed report, the motion for next Wednesday's (13 December) meeting of full council, reads as follows:

"Carmarthenshire Council expresses concern about the way in which its reputation has been tarnished in recent years by the court actions involving our chief executive and Mrs Jacqui Thompson.

"We fully accept that the previous council was obliged to defend its most senior officer in the High Court against a libel accusation.

"We also accept that it was the chief executive's prerogative to launch a personal counter-libel action to protect his reputation.

"The judicial outcome clearly vindicates these actions. However, we are now concerned that the pursual of damages and costs is having the perverse effect of causing damage to the reputation of this council and its chief executive.

"We urge the chief executive and the executive board to seek means of settling this matter in a way which will not result in Mrs Thompson losing her home.

"We believe that such a conciliatory approach would enhance the reputation of this council and its chief executive and help bring closure to this toxic issue."

There is no guarantee that a majority of councillors will agree to support the motion, and it is not clear whether the vote will be whipped along party lines. What we can be sure of is that there will be a lot of behind-the-scenes arm twisting in County Hall ahead of the vote.

Apart from uncertainty about the outcome of a vote, a hugely complicating factor is the Chief Executive's own legal action to force payment of his damages. Mr James has a charge on the property and is understood to be preparing court action which would force the sale of the Thompsons' home.

Much will depend on what appears to have been a rather vague commitment by Mr James to pay any damages over to the council. If that agreement holds good, the council would be the real beneficiary of Mr James's court action, and so in theory at least it could try to persuade him not to proceed.

Whether Mr James would be amenable to such a suggestion and possibly agree to formalise an arrangement by transferring his claim to the council remains to be seen.

In addition to the motion, it is understood that Cllr Siân Caiach will submit a question asking for clarification of what Mr James would do with his damages.

It is not unknown for motions to be withdrawn or heavily amended at the last minute, but currently the scene is set for a very interesting meeting next week, with councillors being asked to decide whether they see any possible benefit in forcing a sale. Not only would that incur yet more legal costs and drag on for many more months, but the end result would be to make a family homeless and, most likely, the sale by auction of the property at significantly below its true market value.

As things stand, councillors and Mr James will have a straight choice between a pragmatic solution which would finally end this toxic disaster, or revenge.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Pecking order

Fellow blogger Jacqui Thompson was in court in Carmarthen yesterday for a brief hearing in which the court made a charging order to enable Carmarthenshire County Council to try to recover £190,390 in costs associated with the libel trial back in 2013.
The hearing was accompanied by a small but poignant protest in the streets of Carmarthen featuring a blood-spattered Kidwelly resident carrying a "pound of flesh".

The judge appears to have had misgivings about the action being brought by the council, but reluctantly agreed to make the order final after pointing out that any action by the council to enforce would mean spending yet more public money in the pursuit of a claim which will yield no return.

For its part, the council has argued that it is legally obliged to pursue action to recover its costs, but that argument is somewhat undermined by the council's failure so far to bring action to recover a further £41,000 in costs incurred when the chief executive, Mark James, persuaded the council to bring a counter-claim for defamation.

All of this is academic because the council has no realistic prospect of recovering any of this money. 
As Jacqui reports on her blog, the chief executive is now pushing ahead with court action to enforce his claim for damages, a claim which now stands at £35,000. Mr James's order was made final back in September 2014, so the next step is to actually force the sale of the Thompsons' home.

The lawyers will have a field day because there are other charges on the property, including a mortgage and a prior charge held by Eifion Bowen, the council's former head of planning.

Cneifiwr is no lawyer, but it would be reasonable to assume that the Thompsons' mortgage lender will want its money back before whatever is left goes first to Eifion Bowen and then Mark James. The County Council will be at the back of the queue in a bun fight with no buns.
Although Carmarthenshire County Council did not make any effort to find out about the state of Jacqui's finances when it allowed Mr James to push ahead with the libel case in 2012, it has since had full disclosure. As things now stand, therefore, the council is guilty of wasting public money by pursuing a claim which has no realistic prospect of success.
One question councillors may wish to ponder is the source of the legal advice given to the Executive Board and just how independent of the chief executive that advice was.
They may also want to consider the timings of the various court hearings. Bearing in mind that Mr James's claim for damages takes precedent over the council's attempt to recover its costs, why did the council push ahead with this action before the chief executive's application to have the property sold?
The council's answer, as approved by Mr James no doubt, would be the legal nicety that in seeking to obtain his damages, Mr James is, in theory at least, acting in a private capacity.

What is now evident is that Mr James has once again succeeded in persuading the council to pile pressure on to one of his biggest critics while shouldering not just the costs but also the negative publicity which will result.

There was no compulsion for the council to act before Mr James, and it was certainly not in councillors' interests to do so. But turkeys voting for Christmas seems to be all the rage these days.

Finally, if anyone is still in doubt as to what this has always been about, read Jacqui Thompson's account of the the chief executive's attempt to have Dyfed Powys Police pursue her with charges of criminal harassment for a string of offending blogposts, including a reference to "lumpy carpets" in County Hall in connection with the Pembrey Country Park scandal.
That must have had Dyfed Powys' finest scratching their heads because, as the Carmarthenshire Herald reported some while back, they are in possession of a file containing serious allegations of criminal activity and a cover-up handed to them by Nia Griffith MP for investigation.
In the Alice in Wonderland, paranoid, thin-skinned, PR obsessed world of Mr James, it seems that what really counts as criminal is criticism of his management of the council.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Cost neutral?

Update 1 December

Simon Thomas, the Plaid AM, has called on Ken Skates to move quickly to make a decision on the Egin grant.

He argues that no Welsh Government money is being used to relocate S4C's headquarters, but that the creation of a cluster of creative industry businesses around the new centre is a much bigger plan, and one he supports.

Without the cluster, it is hard to see that the relocation of a few dozen jobs from Cardiff would bring anything more than marginal benefit to Carmarthen.

UWTSD's lack of transparency, and some would say honesty, in its handling of the project has rightly attracted criticism, but if the scheme is to have any meaningful impact, it is vital that funding for the cluster is put in place.

__________________


An extraordinary row has broken out about the relocation of S4C's headquarters to Carmarthen after it emerged that University of Wales Trinity Saint David's (UWTSD) has applied to the Welsh government for a grant of up to £6 million to fund the development, known as Yr Egin.

News of the grant application broke late last week, and has been greeted with anger by those who supported rival bids from other towns, with suggestions that the UWTSD bid was not entirely honest and calls for the bidding process to be re-opened.

Yesterday questions were asked in the Senedd:

(Diolch i Seimon Brooks)

Ken Skates suggested that the funding gap had arisen because of problems in obtaining EU funding. More on that below.

He went on to say that the government's response to the grant application would now depend on UWTSD being able to demonstrate that the application would bring additional value, and that the new centre would create jobs which would not otherwise have been created by S4C's decision to move to Carmarthen.

However,  the minister was keen to distinguish between the new S4C headquarters and the wider plan to house companies in the creative industries.

As things stand, the project is in a mess with many unanswered questions.

Work on the building is due to begin in December. Will that now go ahead? To what extent is the project dependent on the grant? To what extent was it clear when S4C opted for Carmarthen in March 2014 that the project was, at least in part, dependent on grant funding? What happened to an application for EU funding which UWTSD told Carmarthenshire County Council was being prepared back in April 2015?

Don't expect answers to these questions this side of Christmas. Meanwhile, UWTSD will have to jump through a good many more hoops before Skates makes a decision weeks and probably months from now.

It is unlikely that the growing number of influential critics of the Carmarthen decision will give up and go away. Here are some of them:

 "Remember that Aberystwyth and others applied for this project. Carmarthen won. Would it be fair to give more money to this bid?"

And here is Siân Gwenllian, Assembly Member for Arfon, raising a red flag:

("Up to £6m in public money to relocate S4C to Yr Egin? No cost in plan to relocate to Caernarfon!! Time to re-think?")

The next day Siân was asking more questions:

("Clarity needed - does the plan need government money to go ahead? Or does the university want to add to the plan at the last minute?")

Richard Wyn Jones, Professor of Welsh Politics at Cardiff University, was even more blunt, arguing logically enough that if UWTSD was asking for money to build the headquarters, it was asking for money to house S4C.

"This is a real scandal. If this had been known at the time, S4C's decision would have had to be different."

In other tweets, Professor Jones describes what has happened as "deeply cynical behaviour" and wonders whether S4C knew when it made its decision that funding was not in place to build the new headquarters.


S4C will be a tenant in the new building, and it opted for Carmarthen on the basis that UWTSD's proposals would be cost neutral. Work on the new centre, which is expected to create 98 jobs of which 55 will be S4C staff relocating from Cardiff, is due to begin in December.

The hope is that the partial relocation of S4C to Carmarthen will bring hi-tech media companies in its wake, creating a hub, and give the Welsh language a much-needed boost in an area where "economic regeneration" has all too often boiled down to jobs in burger joints, and developing yet more low-pay retail capacity topped up with more unwanted office space (see Eastgate in Llanelli).

Enter Carmarthenshire County Council

Back in April 2015 Carmarthenshire County Council's "Welsh Language Advisory Panel" met representatives from UWTSD and S4C to discuss the project. The minutes show that an application for EU funding was in preparation.

It may be that the application got caught up with the Brexit vote, but equally plausibly it may be that Carmarthenshire County Council's cavalier management of EU grants and ongoing investigations put paid to UWTSD's hopes of obtaining European funding. The council has since been quietly stripped of responsibility for managing whatever is left of EU grant funding.

As a reminder, Meryl Gravell awarded millions of pounds in EU grants to shell companies with no trading record (see Meryl's Millions for one example).

Among the schemes to receive millions of pounds in EU money was a meat processing plant which, it turned out, was simply relocating from Carmarthen to Cross Hands with only vague hopes that a few new jobs would be created. Moreover, the money came from an EU fund managed by the council which was not supposed to aid primary food processing. Another scheme saw the development of an office block for a property lettings firm.

What is undoubtedly the case is that the millions of pounds squandered on projects which will at best create a few low-paid jobs would have been far better spent on creating a hub for hi-tech, high paid jobs in and around Yr Egin.

Given the importance of this project to the town and the county, it is disappointing to put it mildly that neither the council's chief executive, Mark James, nor his two assistant chief executives could find time to attend the meeting back in April 2015.

Even more so because the Egin project has very important ramifications for the huge, embryonic Carmarthen West housing development to the south of the proposed new centre.

A key feature of this green field development sprawling its way across open countryside is a £5 million link road which will link UWTSD with the A40. The county council has picked up the bill for the road, but is hoping to recoup the money from a £12,500 per house roof tax on new houses completed above a certain threshold.

Just as the council was limbering up to begin negotiations with the developers, who include what appear to be a consortium of shy and retiring East Anglian grain barons, Meryl Gravell popped up helpfully declaring that the road would be needed for the new S4C headquarters anyway.

In the case of Carmarthen West, those sunlit uplands appear to be receding into the distant future, with reliable reports that punters are not flocking to buy the relatively small number of houses built so far.

If the Egin project fails, it may be that all Carmarthen gets is a very expensive stretch of asphalt running across some scenic countryside and going nowhere in particular.

In line with the council's policy of mitigating the impact of large housing developments by adopting Welsh names for new roads, perhaps they should call it Ffordd Mark James Way to remind us all of what he did for Carmarthenshire when he has gone.





Thursday, 17 November 2016

RIP Cantref

When the "merger" of Newcastle Emlyn-based Tai Cantref was pushed through in August, this blog noted how the few wavering voters were persuaded to back the deal with last minute and vague assurances about Wales and West's commitment to the Welsh language, and promises to continue to use local trades to maintain the housing association's properties.

It is now clear that the promises were not worth the paper they were not written on.

The first wave of sackings of staff followed immediately after the final vote, and Tai Cantref's website has now disappeared, with searches for Tai Cantref being redirected to WWHA's website where commitment to the Welsh language boils down to copying and pasting English-language material into Google Translate, which spits out what amounts to pigeon gobbledygook.

Cantref tenants calling the Wales and West Helpline are instructed to select Option 2 if they wish to speak to someone in Welsh, only to find that calls are then answered from WWHA's call centre in Cardiff in English.

As for the commitment to continue using local tradespeople for maintenance and repair services, maintenance vans with the WWHA logo are now becoming an increasingly familiar sight in the Cantref area.

The speed with which WWHA has broken its promises is breathtaking, and former Cantref staff and tenants alike must be asking themselves why no effort was made by some of the old assocation's more prominent members to ensure that WWHA's promises were committed to writing, and that no mechanism was put in place to hold the Cardiff-based housing group to account.

The demise of Cantref and the likelihood that more small local housing associations will follow means the death of local accountability and the quaint idea that housing associations exist to serve the interests of local people.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Curse of Gelli Aur

If you search "Golden Grove Wales" on Youtube, you will be presented with an episode from one of those daft ghost hunter shows aimed at the sort of people who read the Daily Express, but if Cneifiwr's rather more discerning readers (that doesn't include you lot in the council press office) were to enter the old mansion, they would undoubtedly be able to detect a rather more real ghostly presence in the form of the  Cold Hand of Cllr Meryl Gravell.

Cllr Gravell has been at the top table of our council since Carmarthenshire emerged from the ashes of Dyfed all those years ago, and she has been closely involved with the Victorian pile near Llandeilo for pretty much all of that time.

The story began with dreams of turning the place into an incubator for media companies, dreams which ended pretty quickly with the council's chosen partner skedaddling with hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money. In the years that followed, more interesting investors came and went at a dizzying rate. It was going to be an hotel, upmarket flats, a rest home for forces' veterans - in fact, pretty much anything you can think of except for a "wellness village".

The latest owner, Mr Richard Salmon, is a reclusive art dealer who bought the house and park and set up a trust, to which he transferred ownership along with a £1.5 million debt which the trust, devoid of any assets other than the house, is somehow expected to repay a year or so from now.

The park had been open to the public, but under Meryl's watch, it had fallen into a sad and sorry state. Soon after Mr Salmon's arrival the BBC boomed "Gelli Aur Country Park reopens to the public".

Time went by, and reports began to emerge that all was not well. The park was not as open as we had been led to believe, and the trust was on the verge of being struck off by the Charity Commissioner for failure to provide any returns.

Luckily, Meryl and her friend Edwina Hart came riding to the rescue in September 2015 with a grant of £989,000 to restore the park and ensure it remained open to the public.

Meryl was ecstatic:

With the financial challenges we face as a local authority, we are delighted to have brought our lease to a close with this happy outcome. The authority is grateful to the Trust for having the foresight and ambition to maintain and hopefully improve the public access and public offer at Gelli Aur. We look forward with much anticipation to watching this wonderful facility evolve.

But, as with so many of Meryl's regeneration schemes, things soon turned out to be rather less wonderful. The park opened on fewer and fewer days, and then closed a few months back, with the council removing the brown tourist signs.

One of the many mysteries surrounding Gelli Aur is the current owner, Mr Salmon. Unusually in this digital age, especially for a successful businessman, there is almost no trace of Mr Salmon on the internet. He had somehow managed to keep a lower profile than even the late Howard Hughes.

The last time Cneifiwr came upon someone as reclusive as Mr Salmon was Norma Woodword, the very shy UKIP candidate for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr who ended up threatening to sue her own party.

Thanks to a Daily Mail reading contributor, we now know a little more about Mr Salmon who is facing litigation in the High Court for recovery of 70 art works created by the late Derek Jarman.

Mr Salmon rejects the claims made by Jarman's former lover.

It is with some reluctance that Cneifiwr links to the rotten Daily Mail, but this latest twist in the Gelli Aur saga is too good to let pass.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Fear and Loathing in Llanelli

Confronted with what is rapidly turning out to be the nastiest, most extreme government in living memory, we have the weakest, most ineffective official opposition since the Ramsay Macdonald era, with the SNP and Plaid's three MPs doing the job which Labour was elected to do.

Labour's latest leadership election may be over, but the civil war continues, with many of the red princes and princesses happily working with the Tories to undermine their own leader. Read Professor Richard Wyn Jones's account of the Wales Bill, currently working its way through Westminster.

Only a very limited amount of parliamentary time has been set aside for debate, he writes, "which would be a pretty outrageous way of proceeding were it not for the fact that the official opposition has made such ineffectual use of the time that has been allotted."

And then this:

The Conservatives and Labour’s Owen Smith combined to veto every single substantive recommendation made by Silk for further devolution in the field of justice, this apparently in order to protect the integrity of the unitary England and Wales legal system.

There are Smith and other Labour colleagues representing Welsh constituencies working their expensive socks off to frustrate the lack lustre Labour administration in Cardiff to ensure that all real power and control over Wales stays in London. George Thomas must be smiling in his pit in hell.

A couple of weeks ago, Labour tabled a motion in the House of Commons calling on the UK Government to withdraw support for Saudi Arabia's lethal campaign in Yemen where good old British bombs are being used to terrorise the civilian population. Children there are starving to death.

Around 100 Labour MPs absented themselves from the vote, some with legitimate excuses, but most with nothing more than a desire to humiliate Corbyn. Again it seems that some Labour MPs actively worked with the Tories to defeat their own party's motion.

Among those absent from the vote was Nia Griffith, MP for Llanelli. Nia Griffith who joined Corbyn's shadow cabinet, then resigned from it in Owen Smith's botched coup, then re-joined it and now seems to be running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.

Never one to mince his words, here is Leighton Andrews commenting on his party leader last weekend:

The narrative being put about by Labour's red aristocracy is that Trotskyists and other extreme elements are taking control of the party's machinery, and that across the length and breadth of Britain constituency parties are dusting off the guillotines for a wave of brutal de-selections. Obviously, the Tory press has been only too pleased to trumpet that message for them. How true any of that is remains to be seen.

Meanwhile in Llanelli a real purge is underway, but here the party is lurching to the right, parachuting in red Tory reinforcements and morphing into a kind of pink UKIP-lite with a side-helping of Trump, amid accusations of bullying and character assassination.

Bye bye Bill

If you listened carefully while outside County Hall the other week you would have heard the sound of champagne corks popping in the Executive Suite at the news that Cllr Bill Thomas (Lab), one of the chief executive's bêtes noires, had been de-selected from his ward in Lliedi.

Bill Thomas has ploughed his lonely furrow for 17 years, doing the sort of things which most people would like to imagine that all councillors do. For starters, he has a mind of his own, which marks him out from a good many of his colleagues. He has stood up for his ward through thick and thin, fought a long campaign to try to get justice for the cocklers whose livelihoods have been wrecked by releases of raw sewage into the Burry Inlet. He has fought an even longer and equally fruitless campaign to get justice for Mr and Mrs Clive and Pam Edwards, victims of incredible incompetence and an even more incredible refusal to put matters right by the council. He has banged on for years about the madness of building new homes on flood plains, and he played a key role in uncovering Mark and Meryl's plans to flog off Parc Howard in Llanelli - while Labour was running the council.

Mr James in a rare encounter with the public


Needless to say, none of this has endeared him to Mr James, and he has been ordered to sit down and shut up at more council meetings than most of us have had hot dinners. A few years back he stood up in a meeting of full council to allege, clearly very upset, that he had been put under covert surveillance by the council. The chair stepped in quickly to ask him for a quiet chat off camera. Last year, it emerged that Bill had received an e-mail from Mr James warning the councillor that the council had a file of documents which could land him in the High Court on unspecified criminal charges.

As thanks for all those years of service and Bill's courage in fighting for his ward, Labour has now unceremoniously dropped him. Bill is said to be considering standing as an independent.

Lliedi is a two-member ward, the other incumbent being Cllr Jan Williams. It is safe to say that Cllr Williams has been less turbulent than Bill Thomas, but quietly and efficiently she too played an important role in exposing the seedy deal which was being cooked up for Parc Howard.

Both of these councillors are the sort of people anyone, no matter what their party politics, would feel comfortable discussing their problems with, but it seems her face no longer fits Labour in Llanelli, and it is claimed that she was bullied into standing down at the next election in May 2017.

One of the prospective replacements for Bill and Jan is a young Labour councillor from Neath Port Talbot called Rob James.

Young Gun

James is one of those young careerists Labour and the Tories specialise in nurturing. A degree in politics, followed by a job working as research and press officer for Glenda Thomas in Cardiff, and now constituency manager for Geraint Davies MP. In 2015 he tried and failed to become Labour's candidate for Cynon Valley for the 2016 Assembly elections.


After all that hobnobbing with Labour aristocracy, carrying out the humdrum duties of a county councillor  must have been a bit of a let-down. His attendance record since being elected as a councillor in Neath Port Talbot has never been anything other than poor, verging on very poor. Here are his statistics for the last few months, with thanks to Stan at the Neath Ferret:

1. Council

Date                Attendance
12.10.16           Present
07.09.16           Absent
06.07.16           Absent
25.05.16           Absent
11.05.16           Present          Total attendance  40%

2. Environment and Highways Scrutiny Committee

Date                 Attendance
01.09.16            Absent  
07.07.16            Absent
26.05.16            Absent    Total attendance  0%

3. Social Care, Health and Housing Scrutiny Committee

Date              Attendance
15.09.16          Absent
14.07.16          Absent
09.06.16          Absent
12.05.16          Absent    Total attendance  0%

4. Licensing and Gambling Acts Committee

Date               Attendance
25.05.16          Absent         Total attendance   0%

5. Registration and Licensing Committtee

Date              Attendance
26.09.16          Absent
01.08.16          Absent
16.05.16          Absent       Total attendance  0%
 
6. Annual Meeting of Council
Date              Attendance
20.05.16       Absent          Total attendance 0%

Out of a total of 17 meetings, Cllr James made it to just two.

Perhaps old Cneifiwr is being selective, and choosing just a particularly bad patch when young Rob was indisposed, you may think. You would think wrong.

Here are the percentages for meetings of full council Rob James has attended since being elected in 2012:

2012/13  55%
2013/14  29%
2014/15  20%
2015/16  30%

His attendance figures for the various committees he is a member of are, if anything even worse. In 2014/15 he failed to attend a single one.


If the good people of Lliedi opt for Rob James next year, his track record in Neath Port Talbot suggests they won't see much of him, and that he'll be waving them goodbye just as soon as he finds a constituency willing to adopt him.

Anyone in Lliedi expecting a young radical determined to break with Labour's deeply entrenched, privileged elite will be deeply disappointed. Rob James' ambition is to board the first class gravy train and take his rightful place alongside Stephen Kinnock, Owen Smith, Chris Bryant, and the rest. 

A big clue about his politics is contained in the name of his blog, Centristvision, which rather like his activity as a county councillor, has not seen much action since 2012.

Announcing his decision to move west, Cllr James told his followers on Facebook that he looked forward to campaigning on the future of Parc Howard. Despite the hard work put in by Bill Thomas and Jan Williams to halt the "exciting" plans which Meryl Gravell cooked up under the previous Labour-led administration, and despite Plaid's prompt removal of Parc Howard from the "asset transfer" list when it took over, Labour in Llanelli is now less interested in the boring process of obtaining grant funding for the house and park than it is in creating the impression that, under Plaid, the future of the place somehow hangs in the balance.

A good example of the post-factual politics which are now all the rage. Why bother with the facts when you can just make up a story?

Tyisha

Appalling though Rob James's attendance figures are, they look positively exemplary when compared with Labour stalwart Keri Thomas who has surely notched up what must be the worst attendance record of any councillor in Wales over the last 10 years.


Prior to the 2012 council elections, Keri Thomas was absent for the best part of a year while undergoing treatment for a condition which, to put it delicately, was ironic for someone who hit the headlines in 2012 with an attack on Llanelli's Polish community and what he claimed were their drinking habits. Incredibly, he was nevertheless nominated by Labour to stand again, and was duly elected despite being unable to campaign.

Even more remarkably, upon his return he was put on several important committees, including the Planning Committee. After a year or two of showing up to some meetings, his attendance fell off again to the point where recently he actually faced disqualification for not meeting the minimum of one attendance every six months - something which even Rob James managed in Neath Port Talbot.

Rather than waving goodbye to someone who was clearly unable to perform his duties and serve the people who elected him, Llanelli Labour's finest decided to persuade their man to discharge himself from hospital so that they could wheel him into County Hall just in time to make sure that Cllr Thomas kept his £13,000 a year allowance for doing nothing, while avoiding a by-election.


But all good things must come to an end, and Labour has now finally decided to wave goodbye to Keri Thomas at the next election, about ten years too late for the people of Tyisha ward.


Like Lliedi, Tyisha is a two-member ward, the other incumbent being Cllr Jeff Owen, now an unaffiliated independent.


Hoping to replace Keri Thomas and Jeff Owen is this pair:




Mcpherson is yet another of those third sector/charity bosses who thrive under the network of patronage and nepotism cultivated by 'Welsh' Labour, and it should come as no surprise to learn that both he and Suzy Curry were fervent supporters of Owen Smith in his doomed leadership bid.


Pictured alongside Oily and Nia Griffith are Mcpherson, Suzy Curry and Ryan Thomas, who was rehabilitated by Labour in Kidwelly after he narrowly avoided trial for sexual assault after waiting almost a year before apologising to his victim at the last minute.

That's red Tory Owen Smith with his laddish misogynism and dogwhistle comments about immigrants who consistently blocks every attempt to devolve power to Wales and who bears more responsibility than anyone for the fact that Theresa May, Boris Johnson and the rest are facing an open goal where there should be an official opposition. 

Nest of vipers

Ryan Thomas is not the only Labour lost sheep to be rehabilitated. Over in Llwynhendy and Pemberton, business woman Fozia Akhtar stormed out of Labour after the last council elections with her former friend Theressa Bowen in a vicious spat with the grande dame of Llanelli Labour, Tegwen Devichand.

Somehow, a reconciliation was effected in the case of Fozia Akhtar, and she returned to Labour in time to see her sister made Mayor of Llanelli and become embroiled in a row about a large Labour delegation nipping over to France to enjoy the delights of the Festival of Prunes in Agen.

Akhtar's inexplicable return to the party certainly had nothing to do with left-wing entryism to boost Jeremy Corbyn's prospects because her Facebook page proudly displays pictures of a beaming Fozia hobnobbing with that rarest of visitors to Wales, the noble Baron Kinnock of Bedwellty.

Fozia is also hoping to become a county councillor next year now that she and Tegwen have become friends again.

As seen on TV

A few weeks ago, viewers of the BBC's Question Time, or "Bigotry before Bedtime" as it is known in Cneifiwr's household, were treated to the sight of Labour activist Michaela Beddows hijacking a question about UKIP's latest punch-up to attack her own party's education policy and declare that she has "never had a problem with UKIP".

So alarmed is Ms Beddows by plans to phase out dual stream education in Llangennech that she has vowed to put her six bedroom house up for rent and move out of the village if she does not get her way.

Lee Waters, a red prince if ever there was, has bravely decided that the best way of dealing with the vicious campaign being waged by Beddows and others is to side with the red Ukippers.

The result has been verbal attacks on school staff and governors and a hate-filled campaign of lies and vilification on a website which has drawn heavily on the "expertise" of Jacques Protic, author of the virulently anti-Welsh website, Glasnost.


All of this and the leader of the Labour group on Carmarthenshire County Council, spiritualist Cllr Jeff Edmunds, about whom the Carmarthenshire Herald memorably said that if you looked up the definition of "lugubrious" in an illustrated dictionary, you would find a picture of Jeff.

As if Llanelli did not have enough problems to deal with.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Saint Mark or Mr Burns?

Note to readers: This is a slightly truncated version of a post published yesterday when Cneifiwr was high on Ibuprofen following a visit to the dentist.

_______________

Like the ancient mariner's albatross, the Jacqui Thompson libel case is proving impossible for Carmarthenshire County Council to shake off, and the smell from the rotting carcass is getting worse.

This week's Carmarthenshire Herald contains an edited version of Cneifiwr's most recent blogpost, an interview with Cllr Alun Lenny, and a third article setting out a series of very pertinent questions the newspaper addressed to the council which County Hall refused to answer.

In his interview, Cllr Lenny correctly points out that, whatever we may think of the merits or otherwise of the case, a great deal of public money is wrapped up in this. He argues that the council is legally obliged to try to recover the money, although that begs the question as to why the council is not seeking to recover the £41,000 in costs arising from the (unlawful) counter-claim.

Clearly, the council will only ever be able to recover a fraction of the money, and Cllr Lenny suggests a compromise by which the Thompsons could be allowed to remain in their home, with ownership passing to the council.

That is a very reasonable approach, but pigs are more likely to sprout wings and fly before there is agreement from all the various parties involved, not least Mr James and his allies on the Independent benches.

A copy of the Herald's third piece with its unanswered questions can be found at the end of this post.

One of the key questions is what Mr James intends to do with the money he is hoping to raise if and when, like the good practising Christian that he is, he succeeds in forcing the Thompson's out of their home.

Will Saint Mark give the money to "good causes", or will he play the role of Montgomery Burns?

"Trust me, I have a law degree"


Whatever happens, the council has left itself wide-open to challenge thanks to the legal wheeze served up to the council's Executive Board by Mrs Linda Rees Jones and Mr James himself.

If Mr James does not pay the money to the council, it is likely that one of his favourite bodies, the Wales Audit Office, will be asked to find out why not because the Executive Board based its decision to award him an indemnity on the basis of a report back in 2012 which said he would.

If Mr James does pay his damages to the council, the council will be leaving itself open to legal challenge because the deal will have driven a coach and horses through the law. Here is the opening paragraph from a law report published in The Independent back in February 1993:

It was contrary to the public interest that organs of government, whether central or local, should have the right to sue for libel because any governmental body should be open to uninhibited public criticism and to allow such actions would place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech.
The House of Lords dismissed an appeal by the council from the Court of Appeal's decision (the Independent, 21 February 1992; (1992) QB 770) that a local authority cannot maintain an action for libel.

Although that ruling was later slightly modified in another judgement, it remains the case that councils and other organs of government are prohibited from suing for libel, no matter what Mr James and Mrs Rees Jones would like everyone to think.

A case in which a council chief executive sues an individual for libel with council money and very liberal use of council resources, and agrees before the action is initiated to pay any damages to the council, looks pretty much like a local authority maintaining an action for libel.

Wouldn't it be interesting to hear what the courts have to say?

Whatever happens, this is a nightmare of Mr James's making and it is not going to be over any time soon.
________________________

From The Carmarthenshire Herald, 4 November 2016

HERALD readers will this week learn of series of inconsistent statements made by the County Council’s Chief Executive Mark James and the shifting and contorted positions adopted by councillors and council officers to justify bankrolling his defence of a libel claim.

On pages 4 and 5 of this week’s paper, the Council’s position is commented upon by our guest writer, the blogger Y Cneifiwr.

We put a series of questions to the Council asking them to explain, clarify or defend their conduct.
Their reply took three days to arrive and failed to respond to ANY of the issues The Herald raised.
We began by drawing the Council’s attention to the report of a meeting of the Council’s Executive Board held on January 23, 2012.

That report contained the words

‘The Head of Paid Service has confirmed that he is not motivated by a wish to benefit financially and that accordingly should his action be successful any damages awarded to him will be paid over to the Authority and will not be kept by him’.

We asked the Council to confirm that it would hold Mr James to the personal undertaking recorded and whether it will offset those damages against the costs it is pursuing against Mrs Thompson in its own right. 

We also asked that the Council whether it  drew the Court's attention to Mr James's undertaking when seeking to recover its costs.

The Council refused to answer.

We then drew the Council to the fact that Mrs Thompson does not have the means to meet the costs bill – a factor of which the Council was aware before writing a blank cheque for libel costs - and asked the Council to confirm how much the Council has spent both on enforcement proceedings and in respect of the claim, and to set out the value of time spent by council officers in dealing with the case in any event.

The Council refused to answer.

We asked the Council to explain why the Council is NOT pursuing payment of the separately assessed costs in relation to the Counterclaim which formed part of the indemnity it gave to its Chief Executive.

The Council refused to answer.

The notes record that Mr James was ‘authorised’ by the Council to respond to Mrs Thompson’s posts by placing a comment on the madaxeman blog. It was those comments which led to Jacqui Thompson instituting proceedings against Mr James in the first place.

We asked the Council to confirm which councillors and/or officers authorised Mr James to post a response on the madaxeman blog.

The Council refused to answer.

We then drew the Council’s attention to the formula of words used to justify non-disclosure of advice tendered to the Council before it offered Mr James an indemnity.

That note read: ‘The nature of the legal proceedings and the extent to which disclosure of the legal advice contained in it would assist the other party to the litigation and undermine the position of the Council and the Head of Paid Service in the proceedings should be weighed against the public interest in disclosing the information upon which a decision to spend public money is based. On balance it is considered that the public interest rests in favour of maintaining the exemption and ensuring the provision of legal advice within the same degree of confidentiality as enjoyed by the other party to the proceedings’.

We pointed out that, applying the words' rationale meant that as the identified risks no longer existed, the balance must have logically shifted in favour of disclosure. We asked, therefore, for a copy of the advice referred to by return. Otherwise, we asked for the Head of Legal to explain why the view expressed above on disclosure January 23, 2012, is consistent with any current refusal to disclose. 

We drew the Council’s attention to the fact the advice was for the benefit of the Council as a public body, not its Chief Executive as a private individual.

The Council refused to answer.

Moreover, the terms of the refusal are themselves revealing.

We asked the Council to respond as a body corporate and for the Head of Legal to respond in her own right.

What we got was: ‘Neither the council nor Mr James has any further comment to make’.

But we never asked Mr James to comment at all. In the libel action, he acted as a private individual.
If we had questions about Mr James, we would have asked him direct. It appears that, as Mrs Thompson and others have long-suggested, there is confusion about the role of the Council as a public body and Mr James’s position, as its employee and a private individual. In litigation, the roles are distinct; but it now seems as though what Mr James wants and what the Council does are indistinguishable.

The Herald is aware that some councillors have strong misgivings about the policy adopted by the authority and are concerned that the litigation and its aftermath stand to cause irreparable damage both to Carmarthenshire County Council as an institution and to public confidence in their representatives’ ability to hold officers to account, or not just be a rubber stamp for officers’ decisions.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

A One Man Show - Mr James tightens the screws

Update 30 October (1)

Thank you to Anon in the comments below for reminding us of the previously exempt report which went to the Executive Board on 23 January 2012 recommending that the Head of Paid Service (Mark James) be given an indemnity to fund a counter-claim for libel.

Putting aside a number of assertions about the legal basis for the indemnity - assertions which the Wales Audit Office later dismissed as wrong - the report ends by saying that Mr James had confirmed that he would pay any damages over to the council.

Cneifiwr had forgotten about the existence of that sentence at the end of the report, and to be fair, so it would seem had Mr James himself a little more than a year later when he told the Carmarthen Journal that the money might go to good causes.

And although the report assured Kevin Madge and the rest that Mr James had said he would hand over the money, it would be interesting to know if he signed such an undertaking.

Update 30 October (2)

Interestingly, a Freedom of Information request to Carmarthenshire County Council earlier this year asking for a copy of the agreement between Mr James and the council covering the indemnity stated that no such agreement existed. The exempt report cited above is all that there is. In other words, it would seem that Mr James did not enter into any written agreement to hand over the damages.

Update 30 October (3)

Just in case there are any doubting Thomases out there who think that Cneifiwr must have imagined the Carmarthen Journal piece referred to above, here it is, dated 19 March 2013, under the headline

Carmarthenshire case win - money 'will go to good causes'

The article quotes Mr James as follows:



Speaking yesterday, Mr James said: "I never intended with this case that I wanted any money out of it. As and when the money arrives, I will decide what to do with it.

"I am sure there will be plenty of good causes in Carmarthenshire that will benefit."


Funnily enough, Mr James's recollections of the Executive Board meeting on 23 January 2012 were remarkably fuzzy, considering that he had more than a passing interest in the item relating to his indemnity. He told Mr Justice Tugendhat, who believed every word, that he could not remember being at the meeting. A year later, he was clearly unable to remember that the Board had been told he would give the money to the council, probably not most people's definition of a good cause.

It was left to the Wales Audit Office to jog Mr James's memory that he had indeed been at the meeting, that he had forgotten to declare an interest when the item came up for discussion and that he had forgotten that he should have left the meeting when it was discussed.

By anyone's count, that's quite a lot of memory lapses.

But as far as his "confirmation" to Mrs Rees Jones that he would pay the money to the council is concerned, he can be forgiven, it being worth about as much as the paper it was not written on.

Update 30 October (4)

The last update for today, and that's a promise. 

Two small but very significant points need to be added. The first is this line from the report which went to the Executive Board in January 2012:

It is unclear whether the other party has the financial means to meet any order for damages and/or costs that may be made. 

In other words, councillors gave Mr James the green light to proceed without knowing what Jacqui Thompson's financial circumstances were. That was utterly negligent and reckless to say the least.

The second point throws yet more damning light on the state of governance in County Hall. All Mr James needed from the assorted muppets and toadies which made up the board at the time was a rubber stamp on the blank cheque. Once he had got that, he had no further use for them.

Time passed, as it does in British legal proceedings, but by the end of 2012 the two legal teams had hunkered down to thrash out a settlement which would have stopped the litigation. Both teams thought they had something, but when asked, Mr James rejected the compromise.

Nowhere in the minutes of the Executive Board for 2012 will you find any mention of this, and it seems reasonable to conclude if there is nothing in the minutes, that councillors were never told that litigation could have been avoided. Perhaps Mr James forgot to tell them, and anyway, they never asked. 

Not that it would have made any difference because the various councillors on the Board at the time were either too much in awe of the "Chief", too stupid to realise what was going on, or were shrieking "burn the witch". Any Segeant Wilsons ("are you sure that is wise, Sir?") would have found themselves on the backbenches minus a senior salary in the twinkling of an eye.

___________________

It has been coming for some time, but the decision by Mark James, Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, to force the sale of Jacqui Thompson's family home marks the beginning of a new chapter in a story which, more than anything else, will be the defining act of his career.

The personal consequences for Jacqui and her family are dire indeed, but what is this costing the rest of us, and what are the implications for the council?

Let's take them in turn.

The Iceberg

Over the coming weeks and months, there will be media reports citing various figures: £35,000 here, £190,000 there, and so on. What the public, and councillors for that matter, are very unlikely to hear is the true and staggering financial cost of this extraordinary vendetta which has been fought almost entirely with public money.

The infamous libel indemnity clause which, ironically, was itself the subject of comments the judge found to be libellous ('slush fund'), was suspended but not removed from the council's constitution in the wake of the Wales Audit Office's public interest reports. The council still maintains to this day that it had the right to use public money to bring actions for libel.

The suspension of the clause means that, in theory at least, Mr James can no longer get the council to pay his legal bills, but in reality the costs to the council (and that means you and me) have carried on rising and are set to rise a lot more thanks to what amounts to covert funding.

The smoking gun here is software which enables bloggers to view activity on their blogs. The sophistication of these toolkits varies, but public bodies, law firms and most corporate entities identify themselves through their IP addresses.

In the run-up to the latest welter of litigation and complaints, there was an extraordinary amount of activity on Jacqui's blog emanating from County Hall in Carmarthen. Council staff spent a huge amount of time combing through every single blogpost, and most likely printing them off for subsequent offline analysis. The time spent online being just the tip of the iceberg.

Not long after that came complaints to Dyfed Powys Police alleging harassment and perverting the course of justice. Even the police, when asked, did not seem to be entirely sure whether the complaints had been made by Mr James in person or by the council.

The complaints, which would seem to have been dismissed, took months to investigate and tied up expensive police resources in the process.

It is unlikely that we will ever know what that cost the taxpayer, but the sums will not be trivial.

As far as the council is concerned, Mr James has enjoyed the benefit of unlimited staff time to help him fight Jacqui Thompson for the best part of five years since she was arrested for filming a small part of a council meeting.

It is worth remembering that following the arrest, Mr James, the most senior officer in a local authority, took the extraordinary step of posting his thoughts on the Mad Axeman blog, written by someone who lives not in Wales but the north of England, and that it was those incendiary comments, attacking not just Jacqui but her entire family, which triggered the libel case.

Is it normal for council chief executives to attack a family living in his or her local authority area on a blog in their capacity as Head of Paid Service? It is a reasonable bet that Mr James is the only one ever to have done so, just as he was the only council chief executive ever to persuade his council to adopt an (unlawful) libel indemnity clause in its constitution allowing him to pay for his counter-claim using council funds (funds, but not in the slightest bit slushy ones).

The case and the fallout from it have tied up expensive council staff time for years, and that includes the hundreds of hours which were spent preparing the council's defence against the Wales Audit Office, not to mention the cost of the posse (including the Head of Law and Administration and the manager of the press office) which accompanied Mr James to the Royal Courts of Justice in London, with Mr James and others making use of the council limo and first class rail travel into the bargain.

All of these substantial costs are invisible to both public and councillors - below the waterline. We can be sure that that no councillor has ever questioned this behind the scenes use of council resources, and they would not be given an answer if they did. If anyone ever does get round to trying, the places to look will be the council's legal staff (cavalier at best, incompetent at worst, according to Sir David Lewis, who knew what he was talking about), and the press office, both of which, conveniently, are directly answerable to Mr James.

And these hidden costs are still rising and are set to go on mounting for months to come. The fictitious division between Mr James as an individual and the council having been a nonsense from the start.

Later this year, and following Mr James's bid to seize the Thompsons' family home, the council will weigh in with an action to try to recover £190,000 in costs awarded against Jacqui.

Mr James's award of damages takes precedent over anything else, and the likelihood is that the council will at best be able to recover only a tiny fraction of the £190,000. In all probability, the cost of bringing the court action will be greater than the amount recovered.

On top of that is a further £41,000 in costs relating to the counter-claim, costs which the council is not pursuing - not because it wants to show mercy, but because it knows that fighting that doomed battle might risk reopening the question of whether it was legally entitled to fund the counter-claim in the first place.

Holding to account

And that brings us to the crux of this whole problem: the failure by our elected councillors to hold Mr James to account.

That goes all the way back to 2008 when the council became the first and only local authority to give itself the power to bring publicly funded actions for defamation. At the time, Mr James's stock with councillors was running very high; he could do no wrong and he got whatever he asked for.

The council leader at the time was Meryl Gravell (Independent), whose line has never wavered. As she told councillors and the public at the extraordinary meeting to discuss the Wales Audit Office reports, "we always defend our officers". The royal 'we' perhaps, and 'officers' meaning Mr James.

Always, no matter what.

The second failure occurred under Kevin Madge's (Labour) leadership, when the council was persuaded to give Mr James a blank cheque (with Mr James present in the room) and to trigger the indemnity clause. From there, there was no going back.

Kevin Madge probably came to regret that decision bitterly, and was put through the mincer when he dared to suggest that Mr James should be suspended pending a police investigation into the unlawful pension and indemnity payments.

The council went through melt-down at the time, and Kevin Madge eventually found himself in the humiliating position of having to defend Mr James's conduct and subsequently to welcome Mr James's decision to stay on as chief executive after the council decided that it did not want to cough up almost half a million pounds to get rid of him.

And now we have a Plaid-led administration (in coalition with Mr James's ever-faithful friend, Meryl) being persuaded to initiate yet more court action on Mr James's behalf.

At first sight it is reasonable for the council to try to recover the £190,000. This is taxpayers' money, after all, and there can be no doubt that that was the advice the Executive Board was given by those same incompetent cavaliers. The fact that another court case was helpful to Mr James in piling on the pressure, may or may not have been coincidental, just as the timing of the police complaints was no doubt just a fluke, but councillors duly did what Mr James wanted yet again when they should have been asking:

a) is there any reasonable prospect of recovering the £190,000 or a significant part of it?
b) what will it cost the council to try to recover the money?

The result will be to throw yet more good money after bad, and all or most of the £230,000 (£190,000 plus £41,000 for the counter-claim) will have to be written off, along with the costs incurred in trying to recover the money.

All of which brings us to the implications for the council.

Election time

Mr James is now pushing ahead with trying to secure the forced sale of the Thompson family home so that he can bank the damages he was awarded. Thanks to an eye-watering interest rate of 8%, the debt has grown from £25,000 to £35,000. If the case rumbles on for much longer, Mr James will soon have doubled his money. And you thought pay-day lenders were sharks.

The damages are personal to Mr James, and the council has no claim on them. Moreover, in the scramble to seize Jacqui's meagre assets, Mr James's claim takes precedent over all others. Like it or not, there is nothing the council can do to stop him.

Indeed, if the council did try to intervene, we can be sure that the litigious chief executive would not hesitate to assert his rights.

The wheels of British 'justice' famously grind exceedingly slowly. The case is likely to drag on well into next year, and the run-up to the council elections.

If, by some miracle, the courts move with unprecedented speed to allow Mr James to seize the property and evict the Thompsons, the council's own action to recover part of the costs will follow on and ensure a double helping of negative PR for the council.


If things get really bad for the council, it won't just be the local press and BBC Wales which report on the case, but the big boys in London, with the Tory titles wading in to attack Labour and devolution. Cardiff Bay's failure to tackle this running sore will be cited as yet another reason why Wales can't be trusted to run a cockle stall.

Plaid Cymru stands to take most of the flak for Mr James's actions, even though this is a mess it inherited. Politics can be very unfair like that, and the consequences for local government in Carmarthenshire could be dire.

Cneifiwr is biased, admittedly, but with the best will in the world, the alternatives to a Plaid administration which is doing some good things are Pam Palmer's Independents - justifiably known as Mr James's political wing - and a bitterly divided Labour Party that can at best muster only about four councillors who are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

Ironically, if Plaid loses and a Labour/Independent administration is returned, Mr James's position within the council will be immeasurably strengthened as he lords it over a weak, divided and largely fawning coalition.

Could councillors get rid of Mr James?

In theory, yes, but sacking a council chief executive is extremely difficult. Growing numbers of us are on zero-hour contracts with few legal rights, but council chief executives enjoy the sort of legal protection and job security that are otherwise enjoyed only by the likes of President Mugabe.

When Mr James applied to be made redundant, it was reckoned that it would cost about £460,000 to wave him goodbye. Neither Plaid nor Labour would be willing to face the public outcry. For their part, the Independents would be happy to pay him that as a bonus just to stay on.

And even if Mr James were to up sticks and leave tomorrow, the fallout from the Thompson case would continue. Not to mention any of the other legacy skeletons.

So the likelihood is that, unless the courts unexpectedly decide to temper justice with mercy, Mr James will run laughing all the way to the bank and continue his reign in Carmarthenshire.

The only small consolations for the rest us are that he will ultimately fail to silence his critics, and that the libel saga, meant to protect his reputation, has had the opposite effect.