Independent auditors have released a damning report into City of York Council’s handling of the former chief executive’s departure.
They say councillors deciding to award the £400,000 payout to Mary Weastell did not have all the information needed to make an informed decision.
And safeguards to stop conflicts of interest were not in place. The council says it “fully recognises there are areas for improvement”.
Ms Weastell was awarded a £400,000 payout at a secret meeting and took early retirement, after going off on long-term sick leave shortly after the local council elections in May 2019.
Ms Weastell had also lodged an employment tribunal against the council and council leader Keith Aspden, which was withdrawn after the payout was agreed.
Cllr Aspden did not declare a prejudicial interest when he chaired the secret meeting to agree the payout, despite being named on the employment tribunal papers.
Conflict of interest
- elements of the payout did not have to be paid under contracts but were paid at the council’s discretion
- the business case considered by councillors at the secret meeting did not include enough facts, both on finance and on the background to the situation, for members to take an informed decision
- records were not maintained that document the use of public money under the scheme of delegation
- safeguards to stop people taking decisions where they have a conflict of interest were not maintained.
The report says: “These matters are evidence of weaknesses in proper arrangements for taking informed decisions.
“The council is responsible for putting in place proper arrangements to secure economy, efficiency and effectiveness in its use of resources, to ensure proper stewardship and governance, and to review regularly the adequacy and effectiveness of these arrangements.”
Independent auditors examine how the council is spending public money by examining its accounts each year.
They say they are satisfied the council has “put in place proper arrangements to secure economy, efficiency and effectiveness in its use of resources” in all areas – except for the payout to the former chief executive.
A council spokesperson said extra information regarding the payout is currently being reviewed by Mazars.
What the council says
Debbie Mitchell, council finance officer, said: “Further work is taking place to provide additional information regarding remuneration packages and when this work is completed, it will be published and shared with the audit and governance committee.
“This does mean that the final audit certificate cannot yet be issued. However, the auditor has made clear that this objection does not have a material impact on the financial statements.
“We welcome the feedback from the external auditor and fully recognise that there are areas for improvement. We look forward working with Mazars to develop an appropriate action plan once this outstanding matter is published.
“Despite the impact of the pandemic, the council was still able to complete and deliver draft accounts to the external auditor by the end of June 2020, a full month ahead of the statutory deadline.
“Following detailed assessment of four areas identified by the auditors as requiring further work, Mazars have not identified any material errors in the financial statements and have indicated that the accounts give a true and fair view of the financial position of the council and that they have been properly prepared.”
Cllr Nigel Ayre sent a general statement about the audit which didn’t respond to the criticisms regarding the Mary Weastell payout – see below.