Carmarthenshire County Council chief Mark James must go - Jonathan
12:10am Thursday 30th January 2014 in News
THE position of county council chief Mark James is now untenable following today's publication of two damaging Wales Audit Office reports into two unlawful transactions involving Carmarthenshire County Council's Chief Executive, according to MP Jonathan Edwards.
The Carmarthenshire East and Dinefwr MP is calling on the Welsh Government to put the local authority into special measures to enable a new cross-party coalition to be set up to end "this dark chapter in the history of local governance in Carmarthenshire".
Their comments follow the WAO's ruling that the local authority acted "contrary to law’" by allowing senior officers to opt out of the Local Government Pension Scheme – to avoid potential tax liabilities – and be paid a "supplement", equivalent to their pension contributions, to enable them to make their own arrangements for retirement.
The council also acted unlawfully when deciding to grant an indemnity to Mr James to bring a libel counterclaim against Towy Valley blogger Jacqui Thompson – auditor Anthony Barrett says the Chief Executive must now repay the £23,217 used to pay his legal costs.
His report on senior officers’ pay and pensions concludes that the decisions were unlawful on a number of grounds: * The council does not have the power to remunerate staff to mitigate the effect of pension’s legislation.
* In making the decision, relevant considerations were not taken into account (in breach of Wednesbury principles).
* The council failed to have due regard to the public sector equality duty.
* The decision amounted to indirect discrimination.
* A senior officer who had a disqualifying personal and pecuniary interest in the decision, participated in the decision-making process.
Last month, the council reversed its decision to offer a pay supplement in lieu of pension contributions and announced that no further payments would be made to the Chief Executive. Over £27,000 was paid to Mr James under the scheme since 2012.
But Mr Barrett said the authority did not have the legal powers to make such payments and there were inadequacies in the processes adopted when making the decision.
"The council has paid out over £26,000 in external legal costs since 2012 under the decision to indemnify the Chief Executive," the report continues. "The libel counterclaim is still on-going and it is unclear what the final external legal costs to the council will be."
Mr Barrett added: “Carmarthenshire Council has acted unlawfully on two fundamental issues, both of which the public need to be fully aware of.
"The authority has taken decisions and used taxpayers' money in areas that they do not have the legal powers to do so.
"I welcome the fact that the council has rescinded its decision over the pensions issue – it now needs to do the same in relation to the libel indemnity granted to the Chief Executive."
Giving his reaction, Mr Edwards said: “The unlawful indemnity and unlawful pension arrangements have seen over £55,000 of public money spent for the benefit of the Chief Executive who, on the basis of these reports, can no longer continue in his role.
“We agree with the auditor that the indemnity should be withdrawn and we believe the almost £30,000 spent on this indemnity should be paid back in full.
“The Executive Board has acted wrongly in both instances – approving decisions worth tens of thousands of pounds without raising any formal questions or concerns.
“The Welsh Government should immediately put the council into special measures to enable a new cross-party coalition to be set up to bring an end to this dark chapter in the history of local governance in Carmarthenshire."
Mr Thomas said the decision to approve the indemnity was based on a "sexed-up" dossier that did not reflect the legal advice provided.
"The gross misconduct of the council officers involved in drawing up the report has brought the council into disrepute and should be countered by instant dismissal," he added.
“Councillors were misled into spending taxpayers’ money doing something the council was, to all intents and purposes, cautioned against.
"Members of the Executive Board have been exposed as incompetent in safeguarding public money and inept in holding highly-paid officers to account. They further approved unlawful expenditure to suit the tax arrangements of the Chief Executive. "
“To restore public confidence there must be political accountability. The Leader of the council and former leader should accept responsibility and do the honourable thing to enable a political reboot."
A county council spokeswoman said: "The Wales Audit Office reports have been received and will be carefully considered by the council in due course. It would not be appropriate to comment further until such time."
A Dyfed Powys Police spokeswoman added: The Police can confirm that we are aware of the report issued by the Wales Audit Office, and whilst the matter hasn’t been referred to us, we are in discussions with the Auditor and will be making an assessment in relation to any appropriate action by the Police.
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