A damning report reveals City of York Council leader Keith Aspden faced allegations of “bullying and victimisation” from the former chief executive Mary Weastell.
Cllr Aspden and the council deny the claims.
But a report by independent auditors reveals Ms Weastell’s employment tribunal claim against Cllr Aspden and the council “involved allegations of bullying and victimisation especially by Councillor Aspden”.
Ms Weastell dropped the tribunal claims after a £400,000 payout was agreed for her at a secret meeting, chaired by Cllr Aspden, who did not declare a personal interest despite the tribunal claim being lodged against the council and him personally.
The report by Mazars says: “A local authority should not enter a settlement agreement simply to avoid embarrassment to the authority or individual elected members, or the cost of defending proceedings.
“It is only where there is a risk that a claim has a reasonable chance of success that it may be compromised.
“The amount paid has not been properly approved and is arguably an unlawful payment.
“The facts suggest to us that this was not a genuine efficiency of business situation but involved the settlement of threatened claims.”
‘A clear ethical threat’
The auditors say Cllr Aspden should have left the room during the secret meeting at which the payout for the former chief executive was agreed as it “presented a clear ethical threat”.
They say Cllr Aspden was aware it was a controversial issue and this suggests he “prioritised political interests over the need for objectivity in decision-making, and propriety in the use the public funds”.
It says he sought advice about declaring an interest at the secret meeting, adding: “We have seen a record of the advice the director of governance and monitoring officer provided to the leader on the matter.
“The advice was that he had no direct pecuniary interest (as insurance arrangements were in place) but that he considers his position (in respect of the meeting).
“The advice is suggestive rather than directive but we can understand how a newly appointed officer who was dealing with the council’s most senior member, would reasonably expect the ethical threat to be so clear and significant that it would be seen as prejudicial.”
Auditors Mazars have taken the unusual step of issuing a Public Interest Report – a document issued when an external auditor finds significant issues that need to be brought to the public’s attention.
Public Interest Reports are rare – only three have been issued to councils since 2016.
The report makes recommendations and a council meeting must be called within one month to discuss the findings.
Council leader’s response
Responding to the report, Cllr Aspden said: “As elected councillors, we have to rely on our adopted codes in place and the external legal and officer advice given.
“This includes the advice my colleagues and I received from legal officers, which on this occasion was that there was no pecuniary or financial interest to declare on the specific decision being made.
“The council’s adopted Code of Conduct in place is clear and states that ‘you do not have a prejudicial interest in any business of the authority where that business: (a) does not affect your financial position’.
“Being council leader requires you to represent the distinct and diverse communities across the city, and crucially, to speak up and make decisions for the city. I continue to learn every day and, with the ever-evolving challenges of the pandemic, there is no doubt it has been a tough year for everyone.
“We welcome the auditors’ work on the accounts and their recommendations.
“We have now asked the council to develop an action plan, which must build on the audit recommendations and provide further assurances to councillors and residents.”