Nearly £50,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent on legal costs linked to the controversial exit of City of York Council’s former chief executive, it has been revealed.
The authority sought legal advice in relation to the departure in 2020 of Mary Weastell, who had been on sick leave since May 2019.
Her exit was later the subject of a stinging independent report made in the public interest, which found that Ms Weastell’s secret £400,000 payoff was not “properly approved” and was “arguably an unlawful payment”.
Ms Weastell had lodged an employment tribunal complaint against the council and council leader Keith Aspden, which included claims of “bullying and victimisation”, which was withdrawn after the payout was agreed. Cllr Aspden denies the claims.
The council leader did not declare a prejudicial interest when he chaired a February 2020 meeting to agree the payout, despite being named in the tribunal claim. Independent auditors Mazars said Cllr Aspden should have left the room when the item was being discussed.
The details of the £45,221 legal costs incurred for specialist employment advice throughout the process were released under freedom of information laws (FOI).
What Labour says
The council refused to disclose details of the information and advice shared between the council and the legal firm, but stressed that the advice was for the council as a whole, not an individual.
The authority said in its FOI response: “The advice does relate to individuals and is considered to be their personal information where they would have a reasonable expectation of confidentiality.
“Whilst it is important for the public to have access to information to hold the council to account when making decisions that will have an impact on the public purse we believe that all of the information that is in the public interest has already been released.”
Labour claim that the total costs related to Ms Weastell’s departure now amount to nearly £500,000, but the Lib Dems say their claims are “full of inaccurate and deliberate misrepresentation”.
Labour group leader Pete Kilbane said: “Overall the cost to York residents has reached half a million pounds, just of the costs that we know about at this stage.
“Labour believes this is an appalling waste of money and that Cllr Aspden should be paying his own legal bills for the cost of making the court case against him go away.
What the ruling Lib Dems say
The council’s chief operating officer, Ian Floyd, has confirmed that the £205,000 per year savings made following Ms Weastell’s departure still stand, despite a recent council restructure in adult and children’s services costing the council £39,000.
Anne Hook, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said: “We make no apology for saving local taxpayers over £200,000 per year from senior management restructure, which will see over £1 million over five years invested in local services rather than management.
“If York Labour wish to continue to fabricate and obfuscate it is entirely up to them, but we will focus on delivering for the city, including York Central, Castle Gateway and building affordable homes – all projects Labour have sought to scupper for their own political gain.”