Friday 12 December 2014

December's council meeting (I) - Tributes, a tantrum and a fox in the hen house

Under Carmarthenshire County Council's constitution, the monthly meeting of full council is described as a "forum for the debate of matters of concern to the local community and the place at which councillors are able to hold the executive board and committee chairs to account".

As the late Frankie Howerd would have said, "Titter ye not".

A whole hour of this month's meeting was spent on personal tributes - as much time as was devoted to debating the entire, controversial Local Development Plan, a planning blueprint which will impact on just about everyone who lives in the county for years to come. The only surprise was that the LDP managed to get an hour because many other issues of huge importance to communities within the county - school closures, for example - can expect to get only a fraction of that time.

There was a long list of apologies for absence, but making a return this month were Cllr Meryl Gravell (not seen in the chamber since July) and Labour's Keri Thomas who managed, with obvious difficulty, to attend his first meeting of full council in more than a year. Previously he was off for a year before  May 2012, but was miraculously well enough to stand for election.

One of the first up was Cllr Wyn Evans (Independent) who had picked up an award for "best communication" for the management of the Dyfed Pension Fund at the annual Local Government Chronicle back-slapping fest

Cllr Evans was a member of the Executive Board when it approved the unlawful tax avoiding pension scheme for the chief executive back in November 2011, an arrangement which would have allowed high earners to opt out of the pension fund, thereby undermining it. The arrangement was kept secret by the Executive Board whose minutes merely noted certain changes to HMRC rules, and the pension fund trustees were not informed of what had been done.

Perhaps this was the Local Government Chronicle showing that it has a sense of humour.

The award will now be placed in the display cabinets in the entrance to County Hall alongside other trophies which include the skeletons of the former Public Services Ombudsman, the Wales Audit Office and the recent WLGA peer review group, all of whom had been sent west to meddle in the affairs of the Best Council in Wales.

Someone had had the temerity to suggest that the chief executive could be "overbearing" when the WLGA was preparing its report. This had clearly rankled Mr James, who for the second meeting in succession attempted to make a joke out of the criticism. The very idea! Say that again, and he might sue.

With the WLGA safely out of the way, Mr James went on to deliver a master class in how to be overbearing. Supremely un-self-aware, he proceeded to dominate proceedings, popping up here there and everywhere to give his view on just about everything, including the portfolios of all the various directors lined up in front of him.

The council could save a lot of money if it just got rid of all those directors and heads of service and kept Mr James instead. Eifion Bowen, the head of planning, managed to get a few words in, but he was the only one who did.

All through the meeting there were loud stage whispers to the befuddled and frankly hopeless Chair, Daff Davies. When a vote on something or other was being held, Mr James could clearly be heard telling the old boy what to do.

"For", hissed Mr James.

"Um, for!" said Elmer.

"Against!" whispered Mr James.

"Er, um, er, against", croaked Elmer.

"Abstentions" prompted Mr James.

"Ah, um, er, ah, erm, abstensions", gargled Elmer.

It might be easier to train a parrot.

When the Death by Powerpoint presentation delivered by Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water came to an end, the camera panned onto the Chair. Or rather, the Chairman's empty chair. Embarrassed coughs could be heard. Elmer had evidently taken the opportunity of this lengthy presentation to leave the Chamber for reasons it is probably best not to think about.

With Elmer back on his upholstered perch, the Mark James roadshow could get underway again.

If anyone wanted to tot the numbers up, they would probably find that the chief executive spoke for longer in the four hour meeting than the entire Labour group put together.

But let nobody say that this is an officer-led council.

At one point the chief executive revealed that he was taking an active part in the newly formed cross-party working group set up to consider the WLGA peer group's recommendations on the changes needed to make the council more transparent, democratic and accountable.

This is the local government equivalent of putting a fox in charge of bio-security at a poultry farm, and it was clear from one particularly bad-tempered outburst from the podium that the chief executive has his eyes on getting rid of full council's right to review the minutes of all the various scrutiny and other committees.

The "receiving" of minutes has for years been the only effective way for councillors to ask questions and raise concerns, and Mr James has harboured an ambition to close down this loophole for some time, replacing unscripted and sometimes awkward questions with nice corporate Powerpoint presentations.

The explosion came when councillors were being asked to accept a report from the Education and Children's Services Scrutiny Committee. The committee chair pointed out that the minutes were inaccurate on a matter relating to Bryngwyn School, and did not reflect what members had agreed. The WLGA panel heard many similar complaints during their time in Carmarthen. He suggested that they should be amended.

Confusion then ensued, with the Chair several times asking all those in favour of accepting the report to raise their hands.

Several councillors wanted to know what it was they were being asked to agree to, including the unfailingly polite and calm Cllr Cefin Campbell.

The chief executive snapped that he had repeatedly made it clear that councillors could not amend or change minutes, and he "suggested" that the meeting move on to the next set of personal tributes - this time for former councillor David Thomas ("Dai Trelech").

What he perhaps should have done was remind councillors of a statement which he fairly recently had inserted into the order of business to try to put a stop to the tiresome business of asking questions. The statement, read out at the beginning of the meeting by the Chair, reads as follows:

"I should remind councillors that the minutes of the previous meetings before us today are for confirmation that the decisions made are a correct record. Other than any points made regarding their accuracy, there will be no debate on individual items contained within these minutes."

The logical corollary of that is that if meeting minutes are inaccurate as these manifestly were, councillors should be advised to vote against accepting them.

But that would open up a Pandora's box, and could give councillors all sorts of ideas about questioning what they are being asked to sign off - such as the famous November 2011 Executive Board minutes which unbeknown to everybody except those present gave Mr James his tax efficient pension opt-out.

With lunch looming, and having been told what to do, Elmer brought this part of the proceedings to an abrupt close.

Part II will follow in due course.


Blodwen said...

I despair. This is the most depressing report of a full council meeting that I've read - and I had been hoping that things might improve after the WLGA report. What on earth has got to be done to stop this "meddling priest" in his tracks. Please, councillors, get rid of him as soon as possible. I see that Pembs CC is considering not replacing their late unlamented CEO. Now there's a thought ....

Anonymous said...

I don't like defending him but just to point out that Daff went to sit in the front and watch the presentation from the normal benches. the powerpoint board is above the chairman's head and therefore he moved so he could see it.

Anonymous said...

Minutes of every meeting should now be verbatim. All meetings need to be taped if minute takers are not capable of doing this.
I have complained about this for years. I have attended many meetings where the minutes provided do not reflect what was said. This should not happen in this day and age.

Cneifiwr said...

Thank you Anon@18.34 - there are times when the webcast misses details or creates a misleading impression.

Anonymous said...

i really think that a presiding officer might be useful. someone who takes procedure into their own hands. Darren Price has often debated with the Chief Executive, and so has Glynog Davis. I reckon with a bit of persuasion even Higgins could be a a good Chair if he promised to not run for for Assembly or Parliament for a few elections post 2015. We need somebody with cross party support and post 2015 ambition for presiding officer instead of this shameless passing around of the chains until it comes to them.

Anonymous said...

Pembrokeshire has "seen the light" - will Carmarthenshire follow their lead? NEVER as long as the feeble minded pet dogs of councillors (who lump when "sir" says jump!) that we have (supposedly) in charge are still there....

Anonymous said...

A freemason as a presiding officer and talking about open goverment do not mix.

Anonymous said...

An ineffectual Chair allows Mr James free rein to control proceedings of what is after all, a Meeting of and for Councillors. An able Chair would be able to conduct proceedings on his own, and tell Mr James (or any other paid servant of the Council) to keep quiet unless his counsel was requested, other than where legal advice was needed to ensure that members did not step over legal boundaries.

Mr James's behaviour post-WLGA report seems to be petulant, sneering and contemptuous of both the WLGA and of Council Members. But he's got away with this for so long, it's seemingly impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. Kev and his fellow Executive members either lack the courage to do so, or do not have the confidence in their own leadership to ditch the bitter, grumbling Gollum-like figure that has figure that wields such incredible power over the administration.

Anonymous said...

mark james is NOT a freemason. To be a freemason one has to be:
a. recommended
b. of good character
and c. respectful of others.

At what point does james satisfy any of those criteria?

Anonymous said...

The C.E.O. gets very exasperated with the councillors' inability to learn the rules of some aspects of the meetings. How much more exasperated do Welsh speakers become when the C.E.O. who, as part of his contract ,was supposed to learn Welsh, conducts himself almost exclusively in English except for the odd 'diolch'.

I assume the reason for the need for the C.E.O. to learn Welsh was for him to use it.

I think if a replacement for the position of the C.E.O. is made, the essential requirement should be that he or she can work in both Welsh and English. I hope Ms. Meri Huws, the Commissioner for the Welsh language, has the authority to see that this is done.

The webcast archive clearly shows the C.EO.'s behaviour. I hope he takes the opportunity to see himself as others see him.

Anonymous said...

Masons of "good character"? What are you talking about? They only join to either:-
[a] Get promotion in work surreptitiously over the backs of non-Masons.
[b] If they have a get contracts and inside info from
influential council officials and help from Masonic councillors !
[c] respectful of "others" ? You must be kidding ! They join to help THEMSELVES and their brethren !!
Why do they hide in the shadows? Why not be open about their membership? Why have secret passwords and oaths? Why declare their "throat will be split from ear to ear" if they give away Masonic secrets?