News that Mark James, Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, was paid an advance of £20,000 in his capacity as Returning Officer 5 weeks before last year's council elections will have phones in the council's Ministry of Spin ringing red hot. Questions about the payment, which took place just before the end of the 2011-12 tax year, include who actually approved it.
Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM has likened this arrangement to what happened at AWEMA where the disgraced chief executive took a £9,000 advance on expected future expenses.
The revelation comes in the wake of the scandal in Labour-controlled Caerphilly Council where the chief executive authored a secret report recommending himself and other senior officers for a massive pay increase at a time when the council is cutting services, making staff redundant and imposing below inflation pay increases for the rest.
In Carmarthenshire, where we have the second most highly paid chief executive in Wales, the outlook is just as grim, as the Chief Executive himself recently warned us in a two page spread in the Carmarthen Journal. The council is also continuing to stall proposals to pay its lowest paid employees, such as school dinner ladies and cleaners, a living wage.
Plaid Cymru (see press release here) and Unison decided to query what appeared to be a £20,000 pay rise for the Chief Executive reported in the council's Statement of Accounts for 2011-12 which showed that Mr James's
salary and expense allowances for the year had risen to £187,102, and that his
total remuneration from the council (including our contributions to his pension pot) was
Not included in that figure, it seems, were fees earned as returning officer in the May 2011 Welsh Assembly elections since that money comes from a central pot rather than the county council. In addition, fees earned as returning officer also count when it comes to calculating pensions. The gift which goes on giving.
What eventually emerged from the questioning was a curious agreement to pay Mr James an advance of £20,000 in respect of his fees as Returning Officer in the May 2012 local authority elections. What is more, this was just a part payment. What the full payment for running the council elections was is not yet clear.
Strangely, the payment was made immediately before the end of the 2011-12 tax year and before nominations for the council elections had closed and campaigning begun. The council told Plaid that the reason for this was that, erm, "funds were available".
With an annual salary which is roughly 9 times average earnings in Carmarthenshire, we can probably safely assume that Mr James did not need the money in a hurry to pay for an unexpectedly large gas bill, so we can only speculate why it was considered beneficial to pay the money upfront immediately before the start of a new tax year.
According to the council, the Executive Board (then headed by Meryl Gravell and her deputy Kevin Madge) did not approve the payment as that would have involved them in election arrangements and therefore have been improper. There are certainly no references in any of the Executive Board meeting minutes for that period which would suggest that the deal was officially sanctioned.
So who approved the payment? Were senior councillors made aware of it at any point, and if not why not?
These are serious matters which go to the heart of the way this local authority is run, and they must be investigated thoroughly and independently. The Wales Audit Office, which has for so long turned a blind eye to goings-on in Carmarthenshire, must now carry out a full investigation.
For those interested in media matters, it will be interesting to see whether this story makes it into the pages of the Carmarthen Journal and Llanelli Star, especially when we recall that in the fairly recent past one reporter was "persuaded" to withdraw a Freedom of Information request on senior officer pay after the intervention of County Hall.