Wednesday 25 January 2012

Joined at the hip

Caebrwyn has reported on the recent presentation of a petition by a group from Ysgol Ffwrnes in Llanelli, noting that normally members of the public, such as the elderly men and women from Llandeilo worried about their day club, are given pretty short shrift when they bring their concerns to County Hall. On this occasion, probably the only one of its kind in recent history, the petitioners were asking for something the chief executive and Executive Board are in favour of.

The issue relates to plans for a new school at Ffwrnes in Llanelli, a decision now with the minister in Cardiff, and it is politically contentious. While it seems that everyone agrees that the school needs to be re-housed, the scheme has attracted objections relating to the size of the planned new school and its location.

The controversy probably also has something to do with aborted plans for a new school at nearby Seaside. There local people disagreed with the council's plans for the siting of the school, so the council threw a tantrum and decided to give the money to Ffwrnes instead.

But back to the petition. There are very strict rules governing petitions in Carmarthenshire. Councillors may not debate them. Only the relevant member of the Executive Board may comment on them, and only if they so wish. Since 99.9% of all petitions will be critical of some aspect or other of what the council is doing, the Executive Board member's comments invariably involve defending the council's position.

Things were different in the case of Ffwrnes, where objectors have made the chief executive, Mark James, very, very angry. So this time, in the full glare of the cameras, out went the executive member responsible for Education and Children's Services, Gwynne Wooldridge, and the shaven-headed Director of Education, Robert Sully, himself.

The gruesome pair then surrounded themselves with small children and had their pictures taken, probably while some lowly official was employed peeling onions off camera.

This is only the latest example of the increasingly blatant politicisation of the council's officers. Mr Sully has previously gone into print to attack parents, school governors and others who have submitted objections in statutory consultations, so this latest photo opportunity should not come as a surprise.

We should also recall that the chief executive used one of the many special loopholes he has built into the council's constitution to appoint Mr Sully on an interim basis rather than seek approval for this senior appointment from the elected councillors, some of whom were surprised to see the appointment of a man with no previous experience in education to the top job.

A few weeks ago we had the bizarre case of an electioneering press release issued by the ruling Independent/Labour group attacking the opposition Plaid Cymru over the issue of budget cuts. The press release, which the chief executive found to be a completely acceptable use of the council's press office, was withdrawn for unexplained reasons on the day of its publication. On previous occasions, the press office has been used to mount attacks on other political opponents, including a notorious case involving Helen Mary Jones, then Assembly Member for Llanelli.

Towards the end of last year, the chief executive informed councillors that he had used his powers once again to extend the sick leave of a councillor from the ruling coalition. The constitution states that councillors who do not attend a council meeting for six months forfeit their membership. At the chief executive's discretion, leave of absence may be granted for further periods of six months.

Apart from leaving electors unrepresented for periods of a year or more, this is quite a useful tactical device to prevent elections from being called. On the most recent occasion, the chief executive noted that his decision to grant a further leave of absence to a member of the ruling coalition meant that no election would be necessary until after the date of the council elections in May. The sub-text seemed to be that any opposition hopes of making further inroads into the coalition's fragile majority were, well, hopeless. As for the public left without a voice in the council for a year plus, well sod 'em.

Also within the last few days we have had the extraordinary spectacle of council leader Meryl Gravell's outburst against people protesting health service cutbacks ("rabble") and her moan about council employees for what she sees as their lack of hard work and dedication.

One of the really interesting bits came, however, when she said "We have 9,000 employees, Mark and I", showing anyone who doubted it just how unhealthily close the relationship between the ruling coalition and the senior officers has become.

Let's hope that at the next council meeting someone gives this dynamic duo a timely reminder that these 9,000 employees are not "Mark and Meryl's" staff, but people employed by the county council to serve the people of Carmarthenshire. And that Mark James himself is also an employee, while Meryl is a councillor from a minority political group.

In the event that the current ruling Independent/Labour coalition is turfed out in May, as it so richly deserves to be, the incoming administration will need the guts to cut the council's overmighty and partisan senior officers down to size.

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