The leader of City of York Council agreed to a £404,000 taxpayer-funded payout for the authority’s chief executive – without revealing that the chief executive was taking him to an employment tribunal.
Two standards complaints have been filed against Liberal Democrat council leader Keith Aspden for not declaring an interest when the payout was agreed.
One of the complaints was dismissed in nine days without investigation.
Cllr Aspden says he has always followed specialist advice from, and given to, the council.
Former council chief executive Mary Weastell had filed an employment tribunal against both City of York Council and council leader Cllr Aspden.
But the case was dropped after the huge payout was agreed.
The six-figure sum was agreed at a meeting, which Cllr Aspden chaired, and at which he did not declare an interest.
At the start of the meeting on February 17, all councillors including Cllr Aspden said they had no declarations of interest to make.
The media and public were then excluded from the meeting.
Two standards complaints seen by the local democracy reporter have since been filed against Cllr Aspden – saying he should have declared he had a personal interest.
The council’s own code of conduct for councillors says:
If you have a personal interest and a member of the public with knowledge of the relevant facts would reasonably regard it as so significant that it would be likely to prejudice your judgement of the public interest then you have a prejudicial interest.
To be prejudicial an interest must be financial or relate to the determination of an approval, consent, licence, permission or registration affecting you.
A councillor submitted a complaint about Cllr Aspden having a “personal and prejudicial interest in the matter of the decision to grant and fund early retirement of a chief officer”.
But the council dismissed the complaint without even starting an investigation into the allegations.
A council spokesperson says the complaint was handled in line with proper procedures.
‘Odd, partial and opaque’
York resident Gwen Swinburn, speaking as a member of the public at a standards meeting last week, said: “Unlike other dismissed complaints the monitoring officer gave no explanation, just that it wasn’t investigated and was dismissed.
“To a reasonable person this looks odd, partial and opaque.
“Considering this was related to the £404,000 payout to a chief officer, the lack of investigation and subsequent dismissal of the case without explanation, in just nine days, to any reasonable person is quite wrong.
“An explanation needs publishing.”
Janie Berry, director of governance at the council, said: “The complaint referenced by the public speaker was managed in accordance with the published procedure for dealing with complaints received, pursuant to the code of conduct.
“The primary concern when dealing with code of conduct complaints is to ensure that they are addressed in a timely manner, as was the case in this instance.”
She said residents can find out more about the code of conduct and handling of complaints online.
What they say
A member of the public has also made a complaint about Cllr Aspden’s involvement with the decision to grant a £404,000 payment for Mrs Weastell without declaring that she had taken him to an employment tribunal.
We asked Cllr Aspden why he did not declare an interest at the meeting and if he believes the early retirement financial package agreed for Mrs Weastell led to her decision to drop the employment tribunal action against him.
Cllr Aspden said: “From the start, I have asked the council to share as much information as it can, subject to employment law, and throughout this process I have always followed the specialist advice from and given to the council.
“It is important to note that the standards complaint, that I was not aware was submitted on behalf of the Labour group until now, has been dismissed following the code of conduct procedures.
“The council’s complaint procedures state that every complaint received has to be discussed with the council’s independent person.
“It is incredibly disappointing that the Labour group are choosing to continue to play party politics with an individual HR issue, now during an international crisis.
“The Labour group fully understand that the nature of such HR cases is heavily guided by employment legislation and therefore, the council is restricted in what information it can share.
“To correct previous misleading claims from the Labour group, I offered to host a meeting back in March with the council’s monitoring officer and the head of human resources, but the Labour group have never bothered to respond.
“We can only assume these claims are to continue their tactic to simply play party politics, rather than to constructively engage.”
Labour group leader, Cllr Danny Myers said: “The swift rejection of our complaint, concerning the Lib Dem council leader voting to use £400,000 of taxpayers’ money to push the former chief executive to leave the council, because she had submitted an employment tribunal case against him personally, was surprising to say the least.
“It says more about the toothless nature of the current standards regime in England than it does about the conduct of Cllr Aspden himself.”