The Wales Office of the Electoral Commission has been in touch to make the following clarification:
"The role of a Returning Officer is an independent position and the Electoral Commission are not responsible for, and have no legal power relating to, the appointment or the removal of a Returning Officer for any given election. This is a matter for the relevant Government department (in the case of the European Parliamentary elections, this would be the responsibility of the UK Government) and accompanying legislation.
"The position of Local Returning Officer (LRO) for the European Parliamentary election is determined by legislation. The person who is the Returning Officer for local government elections (appointed by the individual county or county borough in Wales) is automatically appointed the LRO for the European Parliamentary elections in that area (Regulation 6 (2) of the European Parliamentary Election Regulations 2004, as amended in 2013)."
Update 12 March
Golwg 360 reports that a spokesperson for Carmarthenshire County Council confirmed that Mr James would be acting as returning officer, saying that the role was different to that of chief executive of the council.
As several people have pointed out, the decision by the Electoral Commission is likely to mean that Mr James will be back behind his desk in County Hall despite stepping down as chief executive pending the outcome of police investigations.
On 22 May voters in Britain will elect 73 Members of the European Parliament. In Wales we will be choosing four members using a proportional representation voting system, and overseeing the voting process and responsible for the count will be local council chief executives acting as returning officers.
The Electoral Commission has confirmed that in Carmarthenshire the returning officer will be Mr Mark James CBE.
Overall responsibility for the election in Wales will rest with Mr Bryn Parry Jones, the chief executive of Pembrokeshire County Council, and both Mr James and Mr Parry Jones will receive generous fees for their work which are in addition to their very high salaries.
The Wales Audit Office has acknowledged that there is a lack of transparency when it comes to returning officer fees, but both men are likely to earn as much for a few days work as many people in the West of Wales earn in a year.
Jonathan Edwards MP has called for urgent ministerial intervention to deal with a situation in which two men at the centre of a police investigation into governance practices in the local authorities they head up will be put in charge of an election and paid handsomely for it.
Jonathan made the call in a speech in the House of Commons last week in which he highlighted the shortcomings of local government in Carmarthenshire. The full text can be found at the end of this piece, and it is well worth reading.
Jonathan Edwards is not the only politician to express alarm at what is happening. Last month Rebecca Evans (Lab), Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales, told the Western Telegraph that Bryn Parry Jones should be relieved of his duties as returning officer until the police had concluded their investigations.
At last week's meeting of Pembrokeshire County Council, on the other hand, the council leader Jamie Adams did not see why Mr Parry Jones should be removed from anything. He suggested that the police investigation was not really an investigation but an exercise to determine whether there should be an investigation. Moreover Mr Parry Jones had not been accused of anything and was not under investigation personally.
Similar semantics could be used in the case of Carmarthenshire. This is what Dyfed Powys Police said when it handed matters over to Gloucestershire Constabulary:
Dyfed-Powys Police have now fully considered the three Public Interest Reports published on 30th January 2014 by Wales Audit Office, into matters relating to Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire County Councils.
As a result, the Force has decided that it is a matter which should be investigated in the public interest by the Police, to ascertain whether or not any criminal offences have taken place.
That sounds rather different to the airy-fairy, hypothetical exercise described by Cllr Adams, and although they are not named individually, Bryn Parry Jones and Mark James both played a central role in the matters now being investigated.
In Carmarthenshire Labour has spent most of the last week trying to turn a comment Jonathan made on Twitter about Sam Warburton, the rugby player, into a major scandal ahead of the national team's lack lustre performance against England on Sunday.
By contrast Labour's elected representatives in the county have so far been silent about the role Mr James will play in the European elections, and Cllr Calum Higgins has had very little to say for himself during the entire course of the scandals which have engulfed Carmarthenshire County Council since September last year. The most concrete expression of his views came at the recent extraordinary meeting of the council when he voted against a motion of no confidence in Meryl Gravell, Pam Palmer and Kevin Madge.
Voters who had been hoping finally to see the back of Meryl were without a doubt less than impressed.
Speech by Jonathan Edwards MP in the House of Commons on 6 March 2014
Carmarthenshire has a very proud history. Some say it has a claim to be the birthplace of Welsh democracy, which is a reference to Carmarthenshire’s role in delivering a yes vote for the National Assembly in the successful 1997 referendum.
However, a dark cloud has been hanging over local democracy in Carmarthenshire for far too long, with a ruling cabal of senior officials and executive board members repressively running the council, stopping democratic debate by the full council, pressurising local journalists, smearing opposition politicians, coercing a council chair who dared defy instruction and making financial arrangements to enable the chief executive, a man who earns almost £4,000 a week, to avoid paying his fair share of tax.
A seemingly permanent back-room deal between Labour and so-called independent councillors—or the closet Tories as the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) describes them—means elections are unlikely to lead to political change.
At the last local authority elections, my party won the largest number of seats convincingly, achieving over 10,000 more votes than our Labour opponents. It is the same discredited personnel at the helm, however.
Given the number of mentions that Carmarthenshire has had in Private Eye’s “Rotten Boroughs” column, one might think that the executive board members would have got the message.
However, unrepentant, the council and the executive board are moving towards darker waters.
That is what happens when we have a toxic combination of weak executive board councillors and powerful senior officers.
The warnings relating to recent events could not have been clearer. Local papers have lost advertising revenue, which could bankrupt their businesses, for daring to criticise executive board decisions.
We have seen the steady erosion of the democratic process, with powers being taken away from councillors and put into the hands of unelected officers, and with the executive board rubber-stamping decisions and, to all intents and purposes, operating as the political wing of those senior officers.
In the past month, a report from the independent Wales Audit Office has found that the executive board was guilty of sanctioning two unlawful payments for the benefit of the chief executive. Those payments totalled more than £50,000.
One relates to the granting of a legal indemnity which enabled the chief executive to counter-sue a local blogger.
The second relates to a tax dodge involving the redirection of pension contributions into the pocket of the chief executive.
The report was damning, and any politician with a sense of integrity would have done the honourable thing and instigated an urgent investigation into the implicated officers before resigning on the spot themselves.
Instead, we got a deliberate propaganda campaign from the publicly financed press department of the council to discredit the Wales Audit Office, and threats and smears against opposition politicians.
Last week, the people of Carmarthenshire were subjected to a farcical extraordinary meeting to discuss the Wales Audit Office report.
The executive board commissioned a QC, at a potential cost of thousands of pounds to Carmarthenshire ratepayers, to discredit the Wales Audit Office’s findings and protect its leaders from votes of no confidence.
This has all been happening at a time when the executive board is pushing through huge cuts to council services and increasing council tax by almost 5%.
The Labour party in Carmarthenshire is pushing through the privatisation of care services, increasing charges for school meals, reducing assessments for children with special needs, making financial cuts to welfare advice services and extending and increasing charges for social care, as well as introducing a range of other regressive measures.
It is a matter of pressing concern that, despite being relieved of his duties, the chief executive of Carmarthenshire county council will continue to be the local returning officer for the forthcoming European elections.
The Electoral Commission has confirmed that position. I fail to understand how an individual who is no longer at his desk due to a police investigation can be responsible for the democratic processes in my county. The same applies in Pembrokeshire, unless events in that great county have changed the situation today, and I ask for immediate ministerial intervention.Source: Hansard