Jacob Williams
Wednesday 7th January, 2015

Rewarding municipal mischief in the wild west

Rewarding municipal mischief in the wild west

And so the festivities are just a distant memory. Although the baubles have been neatly stowed in attics up and down the land and won’t be thought about for another year, nightmarish flashbacks of the turkey carcass could still provide potent reminders of the season of goodwill for many days to come.

After pigging out on the seasonal savouries and confections, not to mention liquor, our thoughts at this time often turn to our post-Christmas bulging waistlines.

Many earnestly embark in early January on a best-foot-forward effort to repent for their indulgent excesses.

It seems that the public service has its own way of arraigning the greedy so-and-sos who’ve partaken in decadent overindulgence too.

On Monday – its very first day in session of the New Year – Bristol Crown Court saw Caerphilly County Borough Council chief executive Anthony O’Sullivan appear alongside his deputy, Nigel Barnett, and their legal department colleague, Daniel Perkins, all of whom are charged with misconduct in public office.

They are alleged to have: “wilfully misconducted themselves in relation to securing Caerphilly County Borough Council’s approval of a remuneration package for the said council’s chief officers from which they stood to gain for themselves.”

No pleas were entered and the trio were granted unconditional bail ahead of their trial which is yet to be fixed.

The allegations relate to committee meetings held in connection with the introduction of the pay rises in 2012. Among the accusations are that committee agendas and reports were “deliberately” not published, and that they “deliberately introduced gratuitous material” into a report to wrongly justify excluding the public and keeping the reports private and confidential.

The charges were brought following a long-running police investigation by officers of Avon and Somerset Constabulary, who took the reins from the local Gwent Police force which stood aside due to a working relationship with the council.

Those with a good memory will recall that at least part of the charges levelled against the Caerphilly trio bear remarkable similarities to the introduction of the unlawful pension opt-out scheme here in Pembrokeshire.

In September 2011 a behind-closed-doors meeting of the senior staff committee brought the infamous scheme into existence which allowed only the highest paid council officers the option to receive a pay supplement in lieu of opting out of their pension schemes. During the first year of the scheme’s introduction, disgraced former chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones was the only employee to avail himself of the opt-out supplements. He was joined by another employee during 2013/14.

The meeting was conducted behind closed doors with the exclusion of the public and press, in Mr. Parry-Jones’ office, where councillors also considered a confidential report based on a third of an A4 sheet of paper, which remains confidential to this day. The justification for holding the meeting in private and suppressing the report were both based on improper legal grounds.

After Dyfed-Powys Police recused itself due to its ‘working relationship’ with the council, a desk-based investigation by Gloucestershire Constabulary came to nothing.

Another local authority chief exec who’s not averse to highly publicised wrangles is Mark James CBE of Carmarthenshire.

You’ll remember that of the twenty-two Welsh unitary authorities, only Bryn’s and Mark’s introduced the aforementioned contractual amendment which allowed only the very highest paid council employees to pocket pay supplements in exchange for opting out of their bursting pension pots.

This, despite the justification given to Pembrokeshire councillors when the Wales Audit Office stuck its nose in, that this canny scheme – declared unlawful by the WAO and unethical by everyone – was only introduced after it was supposedly suggested by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs as a way of allowing council top earners to avoid substantial tax liabilities.

Coincidences do exist, and the fact these authorities are neighbouring and both had seemingly prudential top men doesn’t mean each scheme wasn’t introduced independently and without knowledge of the other. Incidentally, the schemes introduced at both councils were identical, and in Carmarthenshire only one employee ever took up the option. Mark James. Chief executive.

Of note is that once the cat was out of the bag, PCC and CCC both called upon the unfruitful services of Tim Kerr QC – infamous for his role amid scenes of mass bloodshed in last year’s Valentine’s Day massacre – to try and defend the unlawful ruse, and shared some of his legal costs.

Kerr’s involvement was a hopeless, expensive legal effort, which failed to convince the auditor he was wrong to deem it unlawful, and further added to the bitter taste in the mouths of the public who funded both the failed defence, and the unlawful payments made under the scheme.

After losing a thumping no confidence vote last autumn, nobody could forget how Bryn was kicked out of the council with over a quarter of a million quid to cushion his fall – but only thanks to the block vote of the ruling independent party. So desperate were they to pay Bryn to leave the Kremlin on Cleddau, the money they threw his way was also found to be partly unlawful.

Those like me who voted against any pay-off had hoped for the ongoing disciplinary investigation into allegations of Mr. Parry-Jones’ gross misconduct – angrily swearing at councillors and attempting to influence their future vote on a matter in which he had a direct pecuniary interest – to continue to a conclusion. Had it not been curtailed by the award of the golden handshake, he could have been sacked with no pay-off, or exonerated, or anything in-between – but justice would have run its course.

There’s no ongoing disciplinary action against Mark James in Carmarthenshire, and I’m unaware if any grounds exist, but he could still be going out the door – of his own accord. That’s what he wants, having applied under the council’s voluntary redundancy scheme last year. If granted, it would come with a not inconsiderable pay-off entitlement which councillors could do absolutely nothing about, as it will be based on a set policy.

In an article published last night, Martin Shipton writes for the Western Mail that Carmarthenshire councillors could be faced with several possibilities which could see Mark James push off. Or, possibly, he won’t.

Masking as speculation, the article is a bizarre read and includes the claim that Mr. James “may be in line for a severance package which could cost the authority £446,000.” Despite being authored in generally vague terms, it’s not short on detail, and to JW has all the hallmarks of being based on a clandestine information leak from a County Hall insider.

It includes the fascinating claim that “it is understood” Mr. James would like his voluntary redundancy to take effect from the 2015/16 tax year in April – however the authority’s voluntary redundancy scheme is supposed to end during the 2014/15 period, on 31st March.

So, with the story nailed down like jelly to a ceiling, we can say with absolute certainty that some time between now and the spring our Towyside counterparts may be tasked with awarding their chief executive a pay-off. Or they may not.

One option is to make Mr. James redundant by abolishing the post. This, too, would see him entitled – rightly or wrongly – to a pay-off, though nowhere near £446k. He could also decide to withdraw his voluntary application and stay on, or retire early and collect a large wad as he heads for the exit.

At the moment, faced with refusing Mark James’ voluntary redundancy application and carrying on with him at the rudder, or accepting it and stomaching a big financial reward, Carmarthenshire’s councillors are in a tricky situation – whatever they do or don’t do, Mark James is likely to walk away with a big cash sum, or will remain in post despite having expressed a desire to leave, and many who’ll want him to.

Unlike in Pembrokeshire where the red flag is draped above the opposition benches, the Labour group in Carmarthenshire is in bed with their IPG equivalent, running the show.

The staunchest Labour supporter – even the more fashionable middle-of-the-road New Labour breed – would struggle to recognise Carmarthenshire’s brand of Labour politics. Its suicide pact with the independents, bowing to unelected officers at every turn, is nothing but a disgrace to democracy.

A weak opposition to the unholy Labour/independent alliance is provided by Plaid Cymru, which is the largest political group on the council, whose members fail to get their voices heard or faces seen through the dust clouds of destruction.

Plaid Cymru’s ‘opposition’ is more of the friends-not-foes variety, following the 2012 election, for instance, its leader begged Labour and the indies to allow it to join them in a rainbow coalition – a plea which was rejected. There’s only so much water you can add to the gravy before it loses its taste.

Whilst the Labour/independents have historically backed Mr. James all the way, you can tell there’s a general election looming by the press release issued this morning by the Labour group, who say Mr. James won’t be getting a golden handshake in their names.

Mark James’ unpopularity and notoriety isn’t in the same league as our foul-mouthed taxpayer-funded Porsche-driving Bryn Parry-Jones. But if he’s sent packing with a deal worth anything near £446k, his unpopularity could reach levels of fever pitch.

Not least in the Parry-Jones household.

Further reading on the Carmarthenshire situation can, no doubt, be found as it develops over on the county’s two political blogs, Y Cneifiwr who writes from a Plaid Cymru perspective, and Jacqui Thompson, who doesn’t!

On her website today, Mrs. Thompston reproduces correspondence she’s received from lawyers acting on behalf of Mark James. The Carmarthenshire council chief exec was awarded damages last year following a highly publicised libel battle over remarks she made about him on her website. Mr. James subsequently secured a charging order against her home and could apply to the court to force its sale to recover the debt.


2014 Golden DonQui

Congratulations are in order for Cllr. Tom Richards who you’ve voted to become your second Golden DonQui recipient.

2014 Golden DonQui winnerOf the 231 votes cast, 96 went to the council’s present chairman, with second place occupied by Cllr. Bob ‘coalition negotiations’ Kilmister on 78. Third was Cllr. Paul Millar Miller with 32 votes and bringing up the rear was Cllr. Stan Hudson who received 25.

With several meetings left to chair, including an extraordinary meeting coming up later this month relating to education, Cllr. Richards may have a lot more to give us yet.

Next year Narberth’s Cllr. Wynne Evans – current vice-chairman – will succeed and take over the golden chains. One of the only names that’s been touted to replace Cllr. Evans as vice-chair is Cllr. Ken Rowlands, the IPPG ultra-loyalist who was bitterly disappointed to have been stripped of his cabinet post last year.

After announcing last year’s Golden DonQui recipient I thanked all of my readers, contributors and moles for all of your efforts during the previous year. I’d like to thank you again for your efforts during 2014, and wish you the best for 2015.

Last year I also said that 2014 could be another bumpy ride – and so it panned out.

Who knows what 2015 has in store, but a permanent appointment has yet to be made for the vacant chief executive slot, there’s also a potential reconfiguration of the role on the cards and its contentious salary – latterly the most generous in Wales – is also up for debate.

Whatever happens this year it will all be set against the backdrop of increased budgetary pressures.

We’ll hopefully establish before too long if the post-BPJ era at PCC is a fresh start at County Hall, or just a continuation of the Kremlin’s notorious days of old.

All I can say so far is the early indications aren’t very encouraging.


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16 Comments...

  • Rockface

    Is it true that BPJ has a new job as a solicitor in London? If so I’d like to know what firm he is joining…could possibly be Eversheds!

  • Barney

    I can’t believe the South Wales Guardian website has no reader comments posted on this story. Isn’t anybody in Carmarthenshire interested in this situation?

    Just thought, their moderators may just be ultra careful so Mr James isn’t libelled again.

  • Keanjo

    Oh dear, TomASS Richards.

  • Brian

    Hmm – as the sad events unfold in Paris we witness world leaders of every hue stepping forward to stress the importance of an uncowed press in maintaining a fair democracy. I wonder whether that wind of enlightenment will ever blow through Carmarthenshire and reach this far west?

  • Blodwen

    You can rest assured, Barney, that we in Carmarthenshire are extremely interested in the Mark James CBE saga – we’re all just very careful what we say because we don’t want to end up funding another libel case brought by him against anyone who dares criticise him.

    The man is probably the most unpopular person in the county and is certainly the most reviled council chief executive that has ever been in post here. He has run a dictatorship and we will be mightily thankful when he takes himself off, with or without the golden handshake, to pastures new.

    It would be nice if he could have the decency to give a month’s notice; then the staff could have a whip-round and buy him a bar of chocolate or something and we could all start organising the street parties. Some hope. He will extract the last penny he can from us – as evidenced by his disgusting treatment of Jacqui Thompson.

  • Goldingsboy

    Is it possible, in the 800th anniversary year of the Magna Carta, in which the principle was established that no one, not even its monarch, is above English law, that it still holds force in Pembrokeshire?

  • Kate Becton

    Blodwen, reading about Mrs. Thompson’s situation has made me feel very sad on her behalf; however in Pembrokeshire there has been a long history of threats of legal action against, in particular, Mike Stoddart and Michael Williams – the difference being that whilst they were very critical of a number of different people they did not libel them.

    It must be the most horrendous situation for Mrs. Thompson and her family – but it really does pay to be careful that criticism is backed up with hard evidence – still feel sick on her behalf.

  • The Thompson libel judgement is very long but worth reading if you’re interested in that sort of thing. It’s fascinating, actually, and reveals a much deeper back-story than the press ever reported, or could realistically delve into.

    Many free speech advocates strongly disagree with the judge’s decision and reasoning, some who I thought would have known better.

    I think it’s a sound judgement. As unpopular as Mark James may be, he was libelled, and you just can’t do that.

  • Kate Becton

    Jacob, have you a link to the Thompson libel judgement? I know that I should get out more but am interested and simply do not have the skill necessary to access it, thanks.

  • Hi Kate, I actually included a clickable link to it in my previous comment, on the first line, in green and bold. I’ll include it again for you! Here:

    http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2013/515.html

  • Flashbang

    I haven’t read the libel judgement but I bet in Mrs Thompson’s blog there’d be a lot of truth and maybe a small amount of libel.

    On a side note, I see Eversheds has made the papers again defending the indefensible, this time a dodgy premium text rate company which has been charging people for texts they haven’t asked for.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/household-bills/11328500/Premium-rate-text-trap-retired-vicar-billed-200-for-gambling-texts-he-didnt-want.html

  • Flashbang, funnily enough Mrs. Thompson’s failed defence included something similar to what you’ve said, but even if true, it’s not a valid defence and didn’t convince the judge, who had the following to say:

    “It is no answer to an allegation of harassment by specific writings posted on a blog that many or most of the other matters posted on the blog are not harassment.”

    As well as:

    “The dichotomy suggested by Ms Michalos [Thompson’s lawyer] is a false one. The blog could be both a contribution to public debate in respect of some of its content, and an ongoing act of harassment etc in relation to other parts of its content. I am only concerned with whether or not it includes the latter, as I find it does.”

  • John Gibson

    Regarding Caerphilly, only the other day I read that misconduct in public office carries a possible life sentence.

  • Flashbang

    John Gibson, I think in Pembrokeshire it translates into big fat payoff and pension. I don’t believe it will ever happen as the law seems to turn a blind eye down this way.

  • PreseliView

    Jacob, with regard to Old Grumpy’s herb garden I thought you might have pointed out the absence of Miscanthus Stoddartii (Michaelmas Grass) which only thrives in Free Market gardens and hence struggles in Pembrokeshire, even when crossed with Climatus Denium transplanted on the other side of the Cleddau.

  • Ray Baker

    I happened to come across this little piece in this month’s edition of the satirical mag ‘Private Eye’ under their ‘Rotten Boroughs’ (not for the first time Pembrokeshire Council has made it to those pages).

    PENSIONER OF THE YEAR

    Bryn Parry-Jones, chief exec of Pembrokeshire county council, strolled into the sunset with a cheque for £332,000 in the wake of a scandal over unlawful top-ups to his pension. Despite BP-J having engaged in a potty-mouthed rant at two councillors who had expressed mild support for the preposterous idea of him paying the money back, he avoided an investigation into what might have been regarded as gross misconduct.

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