Chief exec deal: auditor could step in

A CONTROVERSIAL decision to appoint a new chief executive for Suffolk on up to £220,000 a year could come in for scrutiny from external regulators, it emerged today.

Neil Puffett

A CONTROVERSIAL decision to appoint a new chief executive for Suffolk on up to £220,000 a year could come in for scrutiny from external regulators, it emerged today.

Andrea Hill, 44, was appointed to the position yesterday on a salary of up to £70,000 more than predecessor Mike More following hostile debate and a tight vote.

Today, it was revealed the selection could now be referred to the district auditor or local government ombudsman due to concerns that rules were broken during the recruitment process.

However, those bodies do not have the power to overturn yesterday's decision.

Conservative councillors from the council's administration won the vote to appoint Mrs Hill to the Endeavour House hot seat by 37 votes to 31, with one abstention.

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During a fierce debate on the issue opposition councillors accused the Tories of breaking the rules by increasing the salary on offer once a short list of candidates had already been drawn up.

Kevan Lim, deputy leader of the Labour group, today said despite the outcome of the vote the matter may not be over.

“We haven't ruled out taking further action,” he said.

“We will look at the implications of the decision and then decide how to act.”

Controversy surrounding Mrs Hill's appointment was sparked after The Evening Star revealed she was offered up to £220,000 to take the job, £30,000 more than prime minister Gordon Brown is paid.

Jeremy Pembroke, Conservative leader of the council, speaking at the meeting, said the decision was a correct one and he was prepared to lose his seat over the appointment of Mrs Hill.

He said: “I find it quite amazing that people are prepared to put services to the most vulnerable people in the community at risk.

“We have a lot of balls in the air and if any of those are dropped it is the most vulnerable people in the community who will suffer.

“I will not let that happen and if that costs me my seat in 2009, then so be it.”

Labour group leader Julian Swainson said the question was not about Mrs Hill's suitability, but the way the increased salary package was reached.

He said: “This is a vote to spend more on a chief executive than just about any other council in the country.”

Andrew Cann, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said now was not the right time to make the appointment while the future of the council was in doubt due to a Boundary Committee review.

He said: “Her first decision in June may be about her own redundancy.”

He added that people in Suffolk do not agree with the appointment.

“It doesn't make sense to people out there and it doesn't make sense to me either,” he said.

A lone dissenting voice within the Conservative group was Russell Harsant, councillor for Bixley, who said he had had received e-mails and letters from constituents asking him to vote against the appointment.

“It is the only issue on the doorstep,” he said.

The appointment has come in for criticism from the Tax Payers' Alliance. Its chief executive, Matthew Elliot, said: “With council tax bills running at record levels and services still apparently strapped for cash, it is shocking that the council is spending so much of taxpayers' money on one staff member.”

A spokeswoman for Suffolk County Council said a starting date for Mrs Hill would now be agreed between Suffolk and her current employer, Bedfordshire County Council.

Mr More, the current chief executive at Suffolk County Council, is due to officially leave the post on April 6.

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