Thanks to everyone who pointed out that the petitions link was not working. It is fixed now.
Earlier this evening it was announced that Mark James would be stepping aside "by mutual agreement" with the council leader, Kevin Madge, while the police carry out their investigations.This came 15 days after the Wales Audit Office published its public interest reports, and huge and growing pressure for Mr James to be suspended.
The reason for the allegedly voluntary nature of this suspension, it is said, is that Meryl Gravell, Pam Palmer and the other "Independents" on the Executive Board were determined to fight to the last for their man, and Mr James was also unwilling to go anywhere.
Kevin Madge dithered for nearly two weeks before coming under immense pressure from Labour HQ in Cardiff which was aghast at what all this might be doing to the Labour vote. What finally tipped the balance is not clear, but the ultimate sanction would have been for the Welsh Government to send in the commissioners.
Faced with the prospect of all hands going down, agreement was reached on a compromise formula saying that it was all mutual and voluntary.
The council's statement is below, and it seems that the press office punished the wayward local press by giving the scoop to the Western Telegraph in Pembrokeshire.
Apart from Mr James, all the rest of his hand-picked team stay in place, and the acting chief executive will be his long-term colleague, Mr Dave Gilbert (awarded with an OBE last year).
Kevin Madge will now be hoping that all of this unpleasant stuff will go away. It won't, and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM has called on everyone, regardless of their political views, to sign a petition of no confidence in the council's leadership.
The petition can be accessed here:
Statement by Cllr Kevin Madge, Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council:
“By mutual agreement the Chief Executive Mr Mark James will no longer undertake his duties as Chief Executive from now until Police enquiries concerning the two Wales Audit Office Public Interest Reports have been concluded.
“I welcome the police investigation which will give the public the assurance they deserve.
“The Auditor has not referred his reports to the police nor has he made any suggestions of any criminal wrongdoing, and I hope that the investigation can be concluded as quickly as possible in order for us as a council to move forward.
During the absence of the Chief Executive his role will be performed by the current Deputy Chief Executive Mr Dave Gilbert.”
Mr James added that he was absolutely certain that neither he nor any of his officers had done anything wrong but that it was only right and proper that he should not be in the office whilst the police concluded their enquiries. This would avoid any perception of undue influence being brought to bear.
Mr James hoped that the police enquiry could be conducted as quickly as possible as this was in everyone’s best interest.
Cllr Madge concluded: “I have nothing further to say on this matter, there will be a full, frank and public debate on the reports at the Council meeting of February 27.”
A brown envelope
A debate on an auditor's reports would not normally be expected to make gripping and jaw-dropping television, but what we saw today in Pembrokeshire was truly shocking.
Old Grumpy and Jacob Williams will have much more to say on their blogs in due course, but there is no doubt that what happened at the council meeting in Pembrokeshire was a taste of things to come in Carmarthenshire, except that the atmosphere here is even more poisoned and the issues even more serious.
The quality of debate and the questions was impressive. Councillors were for the most part allowed to speak freely without interruption or bullying from the chair. Apparently it is not always like that in Pembrokeshire.
Seated alongside the Chair and the monitoring officer was Mr Timothy Kerr, Carmarthenshire's favourite QC.
Almost four hours into the debate things took a sudden nosedive when Mr Kerr revealed almost as an aside that he had been given a piece of paper with quotes taken from newspaper cuttings. He read a few of them out. They ranged from "the chief executive should be suspended" to "things have got to change".
The piece of paper had been in an envelope passed to him in the car which had picked him up from the railway station. Mr Kerr smiled several times as the drama developed. He was clearly enjoying this little game.
After a lot of questioning, it turned out that the envelope had been given to him by the council's monitoring officer (in Carmarthenshire this would be Mrs Linda Rees Jones).
The individuals who had made the comments could well find themselves in difficulty for failing to declare a prejudicial interest and failing to withdraw from the meeting, it was suggested.
After a great deal more questioning, Mr Kerr read out a list of names of councillors which had apparently also been tucked into the envelope.
Amazingly it turned out that these were all councillors who were likely to vote against the council's leadership and senior officers.
Councillors who thought that the chief executive was the saviour of Pembrokeshire and that the ruling Independents (or IPPG+ councillors as they are known in the county next door) had done a fine job would, Mr Kerr opined, not fall foul of the rules for the most part unless they had been particularly outspoken.
Opposition councillors initially tried to stand their ground, but with the threat of disciplinary action hanging over them for expressing an opinion, they left the chamber.
Having got rid of the opposition, the council's leadership was left with an open goal.
While debate was still in progress, councillors repeatedly argued that they had not been allowed to see the advice Mr Kerr had given the council. How could they decide on something knowing that they had not seen all the evidence? The document remained firmly under lock and key, with Carmarthenshire County Council holding the key because this was jointly commissioned advice, and Carmarthenshire had not consented to disclosure.
We can guess what will happen on 27 February, when Carmarthenshire's councillors will be told that Pembrokeshire does not want disclosure.
A very lawful Coup d'Etat
The business with the envelope and the little list of names was bad enough, but even more spine chilling was the role played by the QC.
Mr Kerr, it will be recalled, was brought in by the council's top brass to provide advice on why the WAO was wrong to condemn the tax avoiding pension arrangements for senior council officers.
Today his role expanded dramatically to the point where he was actually dispensing instant rulings on who could and who could not vote on the auditor's reports. What was left of local democracy in Pembrokeshire was killed off by a London silk.