Chief Executive Mark James: The key questions...
6:00am Wednesday 2nd October 2013 in Ammanford news
WE need answers – and we need them fast.
That is the blunt message from local politicians following the disclosure that auditors have deemed two transactions involving Carmarthenshire County Council chief executive Mark James to be unlawful.
It comes after Friday’s showdown between county councillors and the Wales National Audit Office ended in “a Mexican legal stand- off ”, in the words of audit committee chairman David Jenkins.
The unresolved issues are now in the hands of solicitors.
The matters under scrutiny are the granting of a £23,217 indemnity to pay for Mr James’s legal costs in his libel case and counter claim against Towy Valley blogger Jacqui Thompson, plus renumeration totalling £16,353 paid to the chief executive in lieu of employer pension contributions.
The key questions are:
*What legal advice was sought?
*How much did that cost county taxpayers?
*Who took the decision to approve Mr James’s new pension arrangements?
*Who is accountable for these decisions?
*How much will on-going legal discussions cost taxpayers?
Although the auditors agreed to sign off the council’s accounts, they stressed the two issues had to be resolved.
Vice-chairman Giles Morgan said the two transactions in question had not been “hidden away” and were there for “all and sundry” to see. “There’s no cover-up here,” he added, “it’s all transparent. This is an excellent audit report – the state of the accounts are healthy.”
But Cllr Bill Thomas did not agree. “If you have a barrel of healthy apples and one bad one that’s not a healthy barrel of apples,” he said.
And referring to the amount of £16,353 he said: “If this is a tax dodge did we pay for a consultant's opinion?
"If so, that could also be considered unlawful along with any expenditure relating to officers and the time they spent on this matter.
“It’s not just the money that’s been spent – it’s the time. A public officer is paid from the public purse.”
Cllr Elwyn Williams commented: “My guess is that this is tax avoidance rather than tax evasion, but I still find it repugnant and it’s a sad day for this council to have partaken in it.”
Cllr Alun Lenny said £16,353 was more than many poorly-paid council employees got paid in a year, adding: “It’s a pretty poor example to set the public and we need to know under what circumstances this was arranged.”
In a clear move to distance themselves from the authorisation of the transactions, members voted to change a minute stating: “The council considers both items to be lawful” to: “The executive board, acting on behalf of the authority, considers both items to be lawful.”
MP Jonathan Edwards said: "The residents of Carmarthenshire deserve nothing less than a full investigation into how almost £40,000 of public money has been spent unlawfully."
Labour councillor Calum Higgins also called for a speedy resolution. "The longer this drags on the more damaging it will be for Carmarthenshire county council," he warned.
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