Chief executive's job may be unlawful

COUNTY chiefs bungled the controversial appointment of new £220,000 chief executive Andrea Hill, watchdogs have revealed.A probe was launched amid huge public outcry at the size of the salary, £70,000 more than previous chief executive Mike More earned, and concerns that rules had been broken in the way the package was beefed up.

Neil Puffett

COUNTY chiefs bungled the controversial appointment of new £220,000 chief executive Andrea Hill, watchdogs have revealed.

A probe was launched amid huge public outcry at the size of the salary, £70,000 more than previous chief executive Mike More earned, and concerns that rules had been broken in the way the package was beefed up.

In a hard-hitting report, district auditor Robert Davies describes the appointment process as “potentially unlawful” because the decision to increase the salary band to secure Mrs Hill was made without important information being available.

He added that the council's selection panel, led by council leader Jeremy Pembroke, didn't debate key issues over the appointment, including the impact of the huge salary on the budget, because all the facts were not on the table and highlighted a number of “deficiencies”.

However, the findings are confused by Mr Davies' conclusion that the areas for improvement he identifies “do not mean that the appointment process was fundamentally flawed or that unlawful decisions were made”.

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Despite this, the auditor said he considered referring the matter to court as “an unlawful item of account” but felt that this would not be in the public interest.

The probe also found that:

Potential redundancy costs of the move, which could run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, were not thought through.

The impact on the council's pay structure was not considered.

Risks to the reputation of Suffolk County Council of such a move were not properly gauged.

Opposition politicians have attacked the Tory administration on the findings, claiming it cannot be trusted to run the county.

Julian Swainson, leader of the Labour group, said: “This report shows that Suffolk electors simply cannot trust their Tory county councillors to act responsibly with taxpayers' money.

“The Conservative administration at the council would have more credibility if they admitted that they had made mistakes in this process.”

Leader of the county's Lib Dem group, Kathy Pollard said: “I think what this report shows, once again, is that a small Conservative group is making secretive decisions for the rest of the county.

“We are very concerned at the implication that the council cannot demonstrate value for money was given sufficient consideration. At a time when many people are feeling the pinch, this simply makes the council look bad.

Deputy group leader Andrew Cann added, “During the robust debate on the appointment, I highlighted the fact that the council should not proceed with making the appointment as it was not clear whether the appointment would be unsafe.

“This report seems to confirm that.”

But the Tory group said the findings of the report actually confirmed that “the process was properly run”.

Jeremy Pembroke, Conservative leader of Suffolk County Council, said: “We have always maintained that the process was robust and thorough, and I am delighted that this has been confirmed by the Audit Commission.

“Labour and the Lib Dems can play politics with this if they like, but the Conservatives will continue working hard on behalf of the people of this county, to continue delivering high-quality services befitting the best county council in the east of England, and to keep council tax as low as possible.

Jane Storey, Tory portfolio holder for resource management and transformation, said: “I am pleased with the outcome of the district auditor's report.

“While the author recommends some improvements, his conclusion that 'the council had had a robust and thorough selection process in place to meet its stated objective of securing the best candidate for the chief executive post' and his comments on the salary level confirm that the process was properly run.”

A spokesman for the county council said a number of recommendations made had already been acted on.

Should the issue have been taken to court? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

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