James's application for severance is very significant, and the consequences of his departure colour the entire report. Put simply, the removal of Mark James in due course will create a much better climate for changing the culture of the council.
The report has rightly been widely welcomed, and its recommendations, if implemented, would go a long way towards addressing concerns expressed by local politicians, the public and the bloggers.
The question is whether Kevin Madge has the will and the clout to bring about the changes recommended.
Despite the welcome, some serious reservations remain, and careful reading of the document provides some interesting insight into how the different participants responded.
The report reads very much like the outcome of an annual staff appraisal as it balances criticism with positive feedback. It lavishes praise on Kevin Madge's stated aspiration of making Carmarthenshire County Council "the most open and transparent council in Wales" while diplomatically pointing out the gulf between reality and aspiration.
The authors of the report say that what they are presenting is a snapshot of what they saw for themselves, and as you would expect they do not attempt to apportion blame, name names or analyse the reasons why Carmarthenshire County Council has come to gain such a reputation for obsessive secrecy, hypersensitivity to criticism and legalistic bullying.
A proper, professional relationship
In his submission to the panel, Sir David Lewis, lay member of the council's Audit Committee, hit the nail on the head when he wrote:
"Recent events should not happen in a well-managed Council....and they will not happen if there is a proper professional relationship between the Chief Executive, the Executive Board and the Council generally and if the Scrutiny Committees are given the full facts."
At its heart, the problem is about the the unhealthily close relationship which developed over many years between the chief executive and a handful of councillors at the top. As they say, a picture speaks a thousand words:
Or as Meryl Gravell herself neatly put it in one of her outbursts, "Mark and I employ 9,000 people".
Not so much a county council belonging to the people who live and work in Carmarthenshire, but a private club serving the interests of a handful of key individuals and their friends.
The chief executive allowed himself to become politicised, and Meryl Gravell's so-called Independents became little more than the Mark James Party. They became completely aligned, rewarding and protecting each other.
Or as the report puts it rather more gently,
"The overwhelming feedback from internal and external stakeholders is that within Carmarthenshire the allocation of roles between senior managers and elected Executive Board members has become confused."
The result was an officer-led council, a complaint which has surfaced again and again down the years and which has just as frequently been dismissed by the chief executive accompanied by a chorus of groans and jeers, mostly (but not exclusively) from the Independents.
The WLGA report tactfully points out in several places that the job of elected members of the Executive Board is to determine policy, while the job of officers is to implement it. However,
"The Review Team heard that some interviewees felt that senior managers including the Chief Executive, were too prominent or protective of Executive Board Members, for example, participating in media activity or in council meetings where executive members should otherwise have taken the lead."
And here we get an interesting glimpse that it is not just bloggers and opposition councillors who feel this way. There are even some members of the Executive Board (Jeff Edmunds) who think that things have got out of control:
"There was a clear expression from a number of Executive Board and non-executive members that this perceived imbalance between member-officer relations needed to be reassessed and realigned. In this regard the reassertion of democratic direction over key strategic decisions and the Council’s approach to business would be welcomed by officers and members."
The Independents certainly bear a great deal of responsibility for what has happened, but they in turn are the product of our corrupted system of local democracy which has allowed a gaggle of gombeen men and women, hangers-on, dinosaurs and attendees of lodge dinners to remain in continuous power ever since Carmarthenshire re-emerged from Dyfed as a unitary authority.
Mark James may be on his way out, but the drwg yn y caws, the poison in the bloodstream, is not going anywhere, and that is why there is so much scepticism that a new dawn is about to break:
"Despite the clear commitment from the Council to aspire to more openness and transparency there were real doubts from external stakeholders whether this ambition was genuine. The Review Team encountered degrees of cynicism, both internally and externally, whether the Council, and the Council leadership in particular was committed to and able to improve its governance arrangements. The Review Team however received strong assurances and some demonstrable proposals from a number of leading members."
Despite the assurances, the cynicism is well-founded.
Throughout the report we hear of opposition to change. We know that Meryl, Pam Palmer and others were less than keen to allow filming. Pam Palmer, for example, thought that councillors meeting in council deserve the same protection afforded to children under child protection legislation, putting anyone with a legitimate interest in local government on a par with paedophiles.
There is opposition to allowing the public to film and record meetings; there is opposition to allowing backbench councillors to see exempted reports (of which there are far too many); there is opposition to relaxing some of the highly restrictive clauses of the constitution because of fears that allowing debate and scrutiny could be abused.
We are not told who is so worried about all these things, but it is unlikely to be backbench councillors.
Kevin Madge may want to change things, but it is doubtful whether his allies really do, and without the support of Meryl and Pam Palmer, Kevin can't be Leader.
It has to be said that there is also room to question the extent of Kevin Madge's commitment to change. Only last month he opposed allowing opposition and backbench councillors the right to ask follow-up questions in meetings of the full council, and despite his claim to be open and transparent, the newly formed Advisory Panel on the Welsh Language is forced to meet behind closed doors and not allowed to publish minutes.
Time will tell, but the omens are not good.
Myths, legends and some fibs
While opposition to change is noted in some parts of the report, in others we can catch glimpses of the usual suspects telling fibs and peddling myths:
"The Review Team also heard concerning suggestions that the Council had previously threatened to withdraw planned advertising from local newspapers due to disagreements over editorial coverage, though these suggestions are contested by others. "
The suggestions may be contested, but e-mails exist to show that threats were not only made but carried out.
Another myth which has been assiduously peddled by the chief executive, Meryl Gravell and others is that officers have been subjected to a campaign of vilification and personal abuse by dark forces (the blogs certainly, and opposition politicians probably). This abuse, they like to claim, is unprecedented and constant.
With the exception of the chief executive himself and his acting Head of Law and Administration, it is hard to think of criticism being made of any other individual officers. Where is the evidence? Nevertheless a climate has been created and a narrative developed which turns the particular into the general, enabling the chief executive to argue, for example, that he fought the libel case not for his own sake, but to protect everyone else:
"It was evident that a number of senior managers were uncomfortable and expressed concern that they were perceived as undertaking an increasingly prominent role, particularly when it resulted in them being subject to disproportionate and unfair personal criticism in the political and public arena."
To be fair to the WLGA report, its response to this seems to be that this is what you can expect if the lines between elected councillors and officers become blurred.
In several important areas, however, the WLGA report is very weak.
A major area of concern for many is what looks very much like abuse and manipulation of the appointments process for senior officers.
The report dismisses this, saying that interim appointments are necessary in a time of restructuring, and no mention at all is made of the dangerous and scandalous failure to appoint a new Head of Law and Administration (and Monitoring Officer) after the departure of the previous incumbent three years ago.
The report goes on to note:
"The Chief Executive has recently submitted an application for severance and four Chief Officers were either retiring or had been appointed to new positions in other organisations. Such senior management upheaval is unprecedented in the Welsh local government context (with the exception of recent
changes within Cardiff Council) and will require building a new team integrated within a programme of culture change at a time of significant budget cuts."
Councillors should reflect on how well they and the council have been served by a chief executive who has completely failed to carry out any succession planning, with the result that we now face "unprecedented upheaval". It is hard to envisage any large organisation rewarding such dereliction of basic duty with a large pay-off.
A major concern in Carmarthenshire is the council's treatment of whistleblowers, with several scandals having been successfully hidden from the public's gaze. Here the WLGA report also avoids getting its hands dirty and sounding an alarm. Instead it has received assurances that there are just "very small weaknesses".
The Review Team also heard concern that the Council’s perceived culture of defensiveness risked undermining the Council’s whistleblowing policy and procedures. The Review Team was partly reassured however in light of a recent Wales Audit Office study of the Council’s Whistleblowing procedures reported to the Council’s Standards Committee on 9th September 2014. The Wales Audit Office concluded that:
“Overall Whistleblowing arrangement are good, with some exemplar practice, if addressed a number of very small weaknesses in policy, process and training will strengthen arrangements further…”
So there we are. The council has a mountain to climb and has been left facing "unprecedented upheaval", and as Sir David Lewis noted, in disarray and in key respects not fit for purpose as the captain heads off into a golden sunset clutching his CBE.