2014 was an extraordinarily turbulent year for Carmarthenshire County Council. It began with the publication by Anthony Barrett, the Wales Audit Office's appointed auditor, of two public interest accounts dealing with the pension and libel indemnity scandals. The chief executive went on gardening leave while what appears to have been a very cursory police investigation took place.
The council, no doubt under the firm guiding hand of Mr James, steadied itself after several very wobbly weeks, and rejected Mr Barrett's findings.
The pension scandal played a large part in the downfall of Mr James's over-mighty neighbour in Pembrokeshire, Bryn Parry-Jones, but what we got in Carmarthenshire was in effect a permament truce. The WAO decided that it did not have the appetite for what would have been long and very costly litigation to prove its points.
Towards the end of the year, to a great fanfare, the council invited in a WLGA panel to review its governance arrangements - not because there was anything wrong with the way things were done in Carmarthenshire, you understand, but because the council wanted to show the world that it was going to be even more transparent and even more squeakily clean than ever before.
That at least was the official narrative.
In reality the great and the good sent down by the WLGA might just as well have stayed at home.
The then leader of the council, Kevin Madge (Labour), gave the 39 modest recommendations a cautious welcome. They would have to be adapted to "fit in with the way we do things in Carmarthenshire" he told councillors.
Even before the ink had dried on the recommendations, the chief executive made his first move by putting a legal cordon around reports from scrutiny committees to prevent councillors from asking questions arising from them at monthly meetings of full council. The reports still appear on the official agenda, but no questions are allowed.
This exercise in making Carmarthenshire "the most transparent council in Wales" was never put to a vote, and even if it had been the then ruling Labour/Independent coalition would have ensured that it went through, denying opposition councillors of an important opportunity to air concerns and hold the council to account.
Labour councillors, now in opposition, may now repent at leisure.
Officially, the group set up to implement the 39 recommendations still exists, although minutes of its meetings are not published and have to be obtained through FOI.
So much for the most transparent council in Wales.
Not long after the dust settled on the pension and libel indemnity scandals, the chief executive quietly made his temporary appointment of Mrs Linda Rees Jones as Head of Legal and Monitoring Officer permanent on the basis that she had held the position in an acting capacity for so long that the role had become permanent by default.
Normally, and in any other council, the appointment of a Monitoring Officer would be entrusted to councillors, but not in Carmarthenshire.
As Local Government Lawyer explains
, council monitoring officers have three main functions:
- 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.
You don't need to be an expert in corporate governance to realise that a Monitoring Officer must not only be independent, but be seen to be independent. Mrs Rees Jones, who played a key role in shoring up the beleaguered chief executive's position during the pension and libel indemnity scandals, is neither.
Not only does she report to the chief executive, but she owes her promotion and salary to him.
And there in a nutshell are the two most important outcomes of the WLGA governance review: shutting down what had been an important scrutiny mechanism and Mr James's quiet consolidation of his grip on the council. He is now judge, jury and defence counsel.
Almost invariably when there is a scandal in public sector bodies (or large corporations come to that), we will be told afterwards that there were serious failings in corporate governance and that all the signs were there long before the brown stuff hit the fan; in Carmarthenshire the warning signs have been there for a very long time.
What the pension and libel indemnity scandals had in common was that Mark James was the sole beneficiary of both unlawful schemes. In theory the schemes were open to other officers, and in the case of the libel indemnity, to councillors as well. In practice, only Mr James was allowed to take advantage of them, and despite Executive Board minutes which stated that he would pay any damages from his libel action to the council, we learned earlier this year that Mr James had changed his mind, with his lawyers telling a court that he could stuff the money down a drain if he so wished.
It's those words "corporate governance" again.
Corporate governance Carmarthenshire style also allowed Mr James to claim £20,000 in Returning Officer fees immediately before the end of a tax year and before nominations had closed for council elections back in 2012 under a "special arrangement", something which presumably still exists.
Much more recently questions have surfaced about Mr James's private business dealings.
If you haven't read it yet, take a look at this post
by Caebrwyn and the comments section underneath on the outcome of her attempts to discover whether Mark James, the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, declared an interest in respect of his private business activities.
As a reminder, James's property business in Century Wharf and the complex web of directorships, companies and business partners involved were dealt with by Jac o' the North here
. Martin Shipton of the Western Mail,
another of Mr James's bêtes noires, has also taken more than a passing interest in this surprisingly colourful corporate tale, including this piece, and the paper followed that up with this account in October.
For a relatively new upmarket, gated residential development in the centre of Cardiff, Century Wharf has been responsible for some remarkably lurid news stories. Dissident leaseholders have accused Mr James and his partners of breaking planning regulations and leasehold agreements by letting flats to rowdy visitors out to enjoy the city's nightlife. Used condoms in the gardens, people defecating in the lifts and others sleeping in corridors are some of the problems they have had to put up with.
There has been a gruesome murder on the premises, and in 2010 police raided the complex in connection with an investigations into an international sex trafficking ring. In 2013 a young woman fell from a seventh floor balcony sustaining serious but not life-threatening injuries. It is understood that she is a Polish national who previously worked for University of Wales Trinity Saint Davids, of which Mr James is a director, and that she was subsequently recruited by Mr James and his partners as their office manager.
Responding to Jacqui Thompson's questions, the council said after a lot of foot dragging that Mr James had not declared any interests because his business interests lay outside the "jurisdiction" of Carmarthenshire. And anyway the council's Code of Conduct for Officers
10.2 Employees must declare in writing to their Chief Officer any financial and non-financial interests that they consider could bring about conflict with the authority's interests.
Presumably if an individual does not "consider" that what they are doing could bring about a conflict of interest, there is no need to declare anything.
The Code of Conduct itself was last revised in June 2012, and there can be little doubt that Mr James himself would have played a part in the design of this particular chocolate teapot. Apart from anything else, who is Mr James's own Chief Officer?
As for whether the council had ever sanctioned these extramural activities, Mr James himself told the Western Mail
earlier this year that it had given its consent, and that he was not in breach of his contract of employment with the council because he was merely a non-executive director of the (four) companies, and therefore not an employee.
It is not clear who gave that consent, but it would seem likely that it was the Assistant Chief Executive (People Management and Performance), who like Mrs Rees Jones reports directly to Mr James.
If the Assistant Chief Executive had any qualms about giving consent, we do not know, but if he had could either have referred the matter to the Appeals Committee, which to put it mildly meets infrequently, the last 9 scheduled meetings having been cancelled, or he could have asked his colleague, the Monitoring Officer.
Corporate governance Carmarthenshire style again.
By declaring himself to be a non-executive director of the companies in Cardiff (but registered to an address in Essex), Mr James can claim not to have breached his contract of employment, but the non-existent declaration of an interest is another matter.
Unsurprisingly, neither Mr James nor Mrs Rees Jones regard this as a matter in which he should declare an interest.
It could be argued that there is a potential conflict of interest because of the council's own housing activities, but of more immediate concern are the questions of how much time and energy Mr James is devoting to his private business interests, and the real risk that they could damage the council's own reputation.
On the first point there is a growing body of evidence to show that Mr James is taking a very hands-on approach to running the companies. There seems to be litigation (now there's a surprise) and negotiations and disputes with third parties, all of which will require Mr James's attention. Then there are lengthy open letters and newsletters to leaseholders, some signed by Mr James in person, including some typically Jamesian flourishes such as a claim in one long article in which he claims to be doing it all to help the benighted residents of Century Wharf.
We can be sure that Mr James is not keeping timesheets, but even a cursory glance at this story shows that he must be devoting considerable time and energy to his private affairs.
As some of the leaseholders have already discovered, Mr James's compassion and forgiving nature have their limits, as "Mr M", a Carmarthenshire resident could have told them. Mr M was a disabled council tenant who complained that the council had housed him in a property without a wheelchair ramp. The council was admonished by the Ombudsman in 2012, with Mr James telling councillors that if he had his way, Mr M would still be homeless.
In Century Wharf, the scene of many a wild party, a gruesome murder, the mysterious balcony accident and a resident sex trafficking ring, Mr James has taken an equally robust approach, telling the press that the incidents complained of all happened a long time ago, and that if there was any rowdy behaviour it was not down to short-term Airbnb guests, but longer term residents.
"There is a cancer in parts [of Century Wharf] he told the Western Mail
, with some "very anti-social owner/occupiers". Criticism levelled at him was "personal, unpleasant and both unnecessary and confrontational".
But we have no concern to feel alarmed, fellow residents, because all this is taking place outside Carmarthenshire's jurisdiction, and has nothing to do with our council.
Mr James's property management business may very well be in his own interest, just as the pension, libel indemnity scandals were, but whether it is in Carmarthenshire's interest is another matter entirely.