west*wales*news*review

West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Pembrokeshire Chief Executive Holds On, but No Ringing Endorsement

Bryn Parry-Jones was never likely to be unseated as chief executive of Pembrokeshire County Council, because he is backed by the ruling Independent Plus group of councillors, and they have an absolute majority. The vote at yesterday’s council meeting was far from overwhelming, though. Just seven votes separated the 30 councillors expressing confidence in the chief executive from the 23 whose confidence had evaporated. Five councillors abstained and two were absent.

The recent report from the Wales Audit Office, finding ‘unlawful’ the pension arrangements for Mr Parry-Jones and one other senior officer, prompted a queue of councillors to table motions of no confidence. Even though the composite vote failed, it delivered a powerful message, as they say.

The council’s monitoring officer, Laurence Harding, had an easier ride, a vote of no confidence in him rejected by 34 to 20, with one abstention. Even if the five absent councillors had been present, and all had voted in favour, the result would not have been affected. Motions of no confidence in  Mr Harding were spurred by some councillors’ impressions that he was politically partisan. The ‘back seat envelope’ incident was a trigger, the envelope left for Mr Tim Kerr QC in the vehicle sent to collect him from Port Talbot railway station and take him to the council’s extraordinary meeting on February 14th.

The envelope contained press cuttings quoting councillors who thought Mr Parry-Jones should go. In Mr Kerr’s legal opinion (which has cost Pembrokeshire £27,000 to date), that meant they had predetermined the issue and should not vote on whether Mr Parry-Jones should be suspended. Those councillors who had gone public with reservations over the professional record of the chief executive had not been told about the cuttings file, and it seemed to them – and to myself as just one ordinary observer – that those officers involved in the envelope affair were siding with the ruling group, rather than providing impartial advice.

Life is tough for the oppositions in Pembrokeshire because the Independent Plus councillors number 32. The ‘party’ groups are Labour, with eight councillors, Plaid Cymru (4), Conservative (3), and Pembrokeshire Alliance (3). There are ten unaffiliated councillors, too.

Voters who do not support Independent Plus councillors don’t have a proper say in how the county is run. Not surprising, then, that voter apathy is an issue. A system of proportional representation in elections, and proportional representation on council committees and boards, would reflect electors’ views better than the present ‘first past the post’. No panacea, because decision-making would probably be slower and more compromises would have to be worked out, but more democratic.

Incidentally, the Pembrokeshire ‘cabinet’ of nine Independent Plussers is not exactly gender-balanced, composed as it is of eight men and just one woman, Susan Perkins from Pembroke Dock. Old-fashioned West, if not totally Wild West.

Pat Dodd Racher

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