THE LEADER of Carmarthenshire County Council has come under fire, after it was revealed that he leaked the outcome of a private meeting to the local press before the party concerned was informed.
Blogger Jacqui Thompson will be made to repay £190,000 following a 2013 libel case, according to a statement the council leader gave to a local paper.
Speaking to the Carmarthen Journal, Councillor Emlyn Dole said: “The executive board’s decision was to pursue the full costs awarded to the council by the High Court, in the interests of the public purse.”
The matter was discussed behind closed doors at an Executive Board Meeting on March 21. No details concerning the content of what was discussed, and what conclusions were reached, was made available to the media, and the webcast recording was terminated prior to the discussion.
However, apparently, the Board was asked to decide whether Ms Thompson – who writes the Carmarthenshire Planning Problems blog – should repay the council’s insurance excess of £127,625, or the full £190,390 which includes £62,765 to be repaid to the insurers.
The claim dates back to 2011. In June that year, Ms Thompson was arrested for trying to film a council meeting.
Later that year, Council Chief Executive Mark James posted comments on the Mad Axeman blog page, which Ms Thompson considered libellous.
She sued Mr James, but in March 2013 a High Court Judge dismissed her claim and honoured a counter-claim for libel from the council Chief Executive.
Ms Thompson was ordered to pay £25,000 in damages, as well as costs. An appeal in 2014 was unsuccessful.
However, while Ms Thompson was aware that this matter was being discussed by the Executive Board, she discovered the outcome of the meeting after she was phoned by a journalist, who told her what Cllr Dole had said.
Interestingly, this was a day before the minutes of the Executive Board Meeting were released. As previously mentioned, the meeting took place behind closed doors and, in the words of the minutes, ‘all officers, with the exception of the Director of Corporate Services, the Head of Administration and Law and the Democratic Services Officer left the meeting for this item.’
Ms Thompson had previously asked the Head of Legal Services Linda Rees Jones to be told the meeting’s outcome. She received the following response: “I cannot inform you of the outcome of this item before our own members, but I will notify you when members are notified.”
However, The Herald has learned that a number of County Councillors were unaware of the Executive Board’s decision.
Labour Councillor Anthony Jones said he was ‘rather surprised as I didn’t know anything about it.’
When informed about the comments made by the Council Leader, Cllr Jones added: “If that is the state of affairs, I wouldn’t have thought it appropriate to make such comments, and would have expected a briefing note.”
People First Councillor Siân Caiach had also not received any notification from the council. However, as she pointed out “we have never been informed about anything regarding the libel action before.”
“It has been a long saga, and I find it absolutely disgusting that the majority of my colleagues have gone along with this,” she added.
It has also been suggested by a source that the figures featured in the article ‘could only have come from the exempt report,’ which implies that a local newspaper was given access to a document which remains unavailable to the public.
The reason for this document, and the privacy surrounding the meeting, were given as follows in the executive Board minutes:
The report and subsequent discussion were said to contain ‘information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person (including the authority holding that information).’
In a statement made by Ms Thompson to the media, which she has given us permission to use, she said:” I am astonished and horrified by this decision, which incidentally I had to learn from the press rather than the council.
“As I’ve made clear in the past, and currently to Mr James’ bailiffs, I have nothing. This is ridiculous, they will never get this and now seem prepared to spend more good money going after bad. Part of these costs were unlawful and it’s about time the Welsh Government stepped in.”
The Herald asked Carmarthenshire County Council if it could provide a copy of the leader’s statement and a further comment from the head of legal on her assessment of the prospects for recovery of the monies mentioned.
We also asked ‘whether the Council thinks it appropriate for a member or officer to make a public statement on the topic without informing the other party to litigation of its substance.’
We also asked to confirm if ‘all councillors were notified before Cllr Dole’s leak of a confidential decision reached in private session to an employee of a newspaper group for which he is a columnist. We asked for confirmation of how councillors were notified. We asked for confirmation that Councillor Dole’s comments were more than a case of him enthusiastically jumping the gun in a casual conversation’.
Instead every single one of those queries, including the direct question of when and how the Council’s legal department had informed Mrs Thompson of the Executive Board’s decision, was ignored.
We received the following response:
‘Leader of the council, Cllr Emlyn Dole, said: “The Executive Board’s decision was to pursue the full costs awarded to the council by the High Court, in the interests of the public purse.”
‘No further information will be provided’. Some straight questions, it seems, are incapable of being met with straight answers.