City of York Council leader Keith Aspden would have been prevented from sitting in on a secret payoff meeting he chaired last year under new rules agreed by the authority.
Tempers flared last night as senior councillors agreed to adopt new guidance about payouts to departing council staff.
The spectre of a public interest report (PIR) issued to the council loomed large, as Labour leader Pete Kilbane repeatedly asked whether the rules would have stopped a £400k payment to the council’s former chief executive, which prompted the damning report.
Independent auditors raised concerns over the council’s handling of the payout to Mary Weastell at a meeting that was chaired in secret by Cllr Aspden.
Auditors said he had a clear personal interest because Ms Weastell had filed an employment tribunal claim against him.
No soft options
The council’s new guidance states that special severance payments should “only be used in truly exceptional circumstances”, should not be “a soft option” and should not be used to avoid “unwelcome publicity, embarrassment or reputational damage for the council”.
Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Aspden was not at Monday’s meeting of the staffing matters and urgency committee, despite being its chair. The council’s deputy leader, Andy D’Agorne, chaired the meeting in his absence.
Cllr Kilbane said: “What this is about is learning the lessons of the PIR to ensure that those things that happened wouldn’t happen again.
“The test for that is – would this guidance have avoided the special severance payment being made to the previous chief executive?”
Liberal Democrat councillor Nigel Ayre said: “Nobody can make a hypothetical on what decision would have been taken. What you can see quite clearly…is that there would be a more robust analysis.”
Few payments in future
The new guidance states that it is “especially important that those individuals within the council who are the subject of complaints brought by an employee play absolutely no role” in deciding exit payments.
Cllr Kilbane said: “Would this clause have prohibited Cllr Aspden attending that meeting that agreed to pay off the former chief executive?”
Coun Ayre accused Coun Kilbane of knowing the answer to his own question, before adding: “The answer is yes and if you can’t read that from paragraph 6.17, I question your comprehension skills.”
Calling for a “civilised” discussion, Coun D’Agorne said: “We have the benefit of hindsight with a particular case but the purpose of this is to have a comprehensive policy that doesn’t just fight the last battle but looks to put in place good practice.”
Head of human resources Trudy Forster said special severance payments should be “very few and far between” under the new rules.
Any such payments to chief officers will be subject to a detailed business case and independent legal advice, which will then be audited by the staffing matters committee.