There are two weeks to go before anyone wishing to stand for election for Carmarthenshire County Council or any of the community councils has to submit their nomination papers on 4 April.
If you are elected and take your duties as a councillor seriously, it is a pretty thankless job for the most part under the cabinet system which we have at county level. Most of the 74 councillors will have little or no say at all in what the council does.
For quite a few, that will not be a problem, as membership of the council brings quite a few benefits to what might otherwise be a fairly dull life in retirement. Looking around the council chamber over the last couple of years, it is fair to say that a good many of the councillors fell into this category. County Hall for them was a rather comfortable club, and many are looking forward to being returned for another 5 years, by which time some will be very elderly indeed.
Of course, not all councillors are like that. Some work very hard for the people they represent and spend long hours reading the turgid reports churned out for their approval. They ask difficult questions, they beaver away in committee meetings and they turn up to countless community council meetings, fetes, receptions and one-on-one meetings with the public. We can be thankful that people like that are prepared to bang their heads against the brick walls of council bureaucracy and secrecy for years on end, and sadly often with little to show for it.
We will not have a full picture of who is standing and who is stepping down until after 4 April, but a fragmented picture is emerging. Both Plaid Cymru and Labour have websites for the council elections here and here. You can click on individual wards to see who is standing where, although in quite a few cases there are still blanks.
On a sad note, it seems that John Edwards, father of MP Jonathan Edwards, has decided to stand down. John Edwards stood out in the council chamber as one of the most thoughtful and experienced councillors. In his quiet way, he almost always hit the nail on the head and asked the best questions. He will be missed.
On the Labour side, it seems that all of the current councillors apart from Hugh Evans in Ammanford will be standing again. Five more years of Kevin Madge to look forward to, it seems. Oddly, Keri Thomas, councillor for Tyisha, is also listed as a candidate, even though he has been unable to attend council meetings for more than a year because of ill health.
In Trimsaran, the stomping ground of council leader Meryl Gravell, Labour is fielding one of its youngest candidates, Ryan Thomas (24), presumably as a practice run.
In Abergwili, the ward currently represented by Councillor Pam Palmer, Plaid is fielding a strong candidate in the shape of Dr Dewi Evans. Cllr Palmer is a member of the Executive Board and also leads the so-called Independent group on the council. It is rumoured that in the past the LibDems made unsuccessful attempts to woo her. Whatever the truth of that, a Palmer-free Carmarthenshire will be a better Carmarthenshire.
In Llandovery, represented by council chair Ivor Jackson, it seems that neither Plaid nor Labour will be fielding a candidate. The office of council chair is regarded as an honorary position to be filled by a person who represents the face of Carmarthenshire to the rest of the world.
For anyone who has seen Cllr Jackson in action in a council meeting this is not something to be proud of. His performance in council meetings veers from confusion and incomprehension as he struggles with procedure to playground bullying of backbench councillors. His attempts at ducking and diving to avoid taking a stand on the closure of the town's secondary school is the sort of thing that brings politicians everywhere into disrepute.
Fortunately, it seems a truly independent candidate will stand against him. We can only hope that the town gets a strong and credible alternative to Mr Jackson.
In nearby Cilycwm it is rumoured that veteran councillor Tom Theophilus will be throwing his hat in the ring once again. If he succeeds, the good people of the area will be represented by a man who will be well into his eighties by the next council elections in 2017. Standing against him is fellow blogger Jacqui Thompson. Unlike Mr Theophilus, Jacqui has made a strong and consistent stand for the schools in the area.
One of the hallmarks of Carmarthenshire County Council is lack of transparency. For the last 13 years the council has been run by Mery Gravell and her fellow Independents, in coalition with Labour for the last 8 years. The lack of transparency extends even to the matter of elections.
The Independents, frequently described as closet Tories (and they certainly contain some known Tories in their ranks), like to pretend that they are not a political party. As this blog has pointed out before, this is an exclusive club. You cannot apply to join it; you have to be invited.
The Independents do not fight elections on a manifesto, and if they have a plan for the county, voters cannot find out what that plan is because it is not published anywhere. Until nominations are in, it will not even be possible to know who is standing where as an Independent.
Over the last 13 years, control of the council has been in the grip of a small handful of people. The Independent top-brass brought in the current chief executive, and a cadre of loyal senior officers has been put in place. All of the key decisions are taken behind closed doors by this small group.
An essential ingredient in this process has been the creation of an effective and powerful PR machine. The council only does good news, and arms are twisted and procedures manipulated to ensure that "difficult" subjects are not discussed in public. Anyone who has been to a council meeting will see that they always begin with a round of self-congratulatory announcements. Crystal vases, CBEs and various awards made by unaccountable quangos are brandished to thunderous applause; Meryl Gravell and her associates make claims about how the council is the best-run, the best-prepared, the best performing in any area you care to name. Their propaganda sheet, Carmathenshire News, pumps out a relentless stream of good news stories; the local press has been bullied into silence; and in the council chamber, Cllr Ivor Jackson is on hand to ensure that no awkward questions are asked.
The results of that are becoming plain for all to see, and last night's report on Taro 9 about the abuse of a woman with severe learning disabilities neatly encapsulated what has gone wrong with this council. It refused to collaborate with the BBC, attacked the decision to make the programme and called the police to keep tabs on the BBC crew and Mrs Delyth Jenkins. Officers who were involved with the abuse are still employed by the council, and have in some cases been promoted. Mrs Jenkins, who bravely stood up to try to stop the abuse, found that when she took her concerns to the top, she was met with anger and resentment and told by the chief executive, Mark James CBE, to "back off". Unsurprisingly, when the matter was finally taken up and an ombudsman's report condemned the council, councillors appear to have been kept in the dark.
Turnout in council elections is never high, but these elections really matter. Let's give Meryl, Madge, James & Co the kick up the arse they so richly deserve.