Easier to be transparent! Auditors criticise York Council

Its over a year since the York Councils last Chief Executive – Mary Weastell – retired. It was thought to be the end of what had been an awkward relationship.

An auditor’s report from Mazers, issued yesterday, criticises the process used to approve the terms of the early retirement.

We said over a year ago that details of settlements (anonymised to protect the privacy of individuals) should be published.

That still does not happen in York.

What happened after the May 2019 elections is the subject to varied interpretations.

However, very soon after the poll Mary Weastall went absent on sick leave.

It appears that negotiations about her future then extended over a 12 month period.

There were (unsubstantiated) allegations of bullying while the Council said that it wanted to reduce ongoing costs by doing away with the post of Chief Executive.

In turn this attracted what is known as a public interest report from the Councils external auditors. In essence taxpayers had claimed that an estimated £400,000 (actual £377,115) pay off given to the departing Chief Executive was excessive.  Most of the money went on pension contributions.

The auditors are critical of Keith Aspden for not declaring a personal interest at the (private) meeting which determined the payment to be made to the former Chief Executive. They confirm that this was not a pecuniary interest as Councillors have access to public liability insurance cover.

(Mazers fall short of their own standards when quoting from a 2017, supposedly independent investigators report, which subsequently turned out to be far from “independent”. It was considered at a public meeting – at Cllr Aspden’s request – on 3rd January 2019. They also omit to mention that the bogus investigation cost taxpayers over £100,000 and Cllr Aspden £20,000 himself)

The auditors confirm that the former Chief Executive was kept on full pay throughout her sick leave absence. Her contract provided only for 6 months on full pay followed by 6 months on half pay. The difference amounts to £18,165.

The auditors also say that of the £377,115  “exit package” only £286,452 was statutory. The Council had a choice about whether to pay the remaining £90,663 which was labelled as “redundancy” and “ex gratia”.

The auditors recommend,

  1. The Council should adopt and apply appropriate standards for business case preparation in relation to exit and pension discretions to improve information supporting decisions.
  2. Decision notes should be maintained that document the factors that explain the case for the use of public funds under the scheme of delegation such as where payments exceed contractual entitlements.
  3. The Council should review the design of its governance policies and procedures to manage conflicts of interest (including self-interest threats). This should include updating the Council’s constitution and scheme of delegation.
  4. The Council should ensure all Members fully understand the requirements of the Code of Conduct in relation to declaration of interests.
  5. The Council should review its policies and procedures to reflect Government guidance in the use of non-disclosure agreements.

The Council has said that it accepts the recommendations and will act to changes its procedures.

We will see.

Auditors criticise York Council

Usually the arrival of the annual auditors report at a York Council meeting produces little excitement (or even mild interest).

Things may be a little different at a governance meeting which is scheduled to take place on 31st March.

While the Councils auditors Mazers give a generally positive view of the Council’s financial arrangements, they do take a pop at the process used to compensate the Councils last Chief Executive when she left the authority, quite suddenly, in 2019.

click image to access the full report

The Council has issued the following comments;

City of York Council has published its 2019/20 final accounts, which will be considered by the Council’s Audit and Governance Committee later this month.

The council’s accounts are subject to external audit by Mazars LLP, who previously highlighted four outstanding areas at the Audit and Governance Committee meeting in November 2020 that required final approval:

  • The heritage assets valuation where information has now been provided by York Museums Trust but was delayed due to the impact of Covid-19. Mazars have made a control recommendation in respect of the arrangements to review, challenge and document the output of valuation experts.
  • The council’s pension fund administrators, North Yorkshire Pension Fund, are unable to confirm pension figures in the accounts. This issue is not specific to City of York Council and affects all local authority members of the pension fund. Mazars have discussed future arrangements with the council to put arrangements in place for a full valuation in 2020/21.
  • Additional information regarding remuneration packages from the council is currently being worked through by Mazars. Mazars concluded that the sums involved do not present a risk of material misstatement.  Additional information regarding remuneration packages is ongoing and will be published when completed.
  • The audit of the ‘Whole of Government Accounts (WGA)’ return has yet to be completed due to a delays in receiving guidance from the National Audit Office.

Mazars LLP have now completed the majority of this work and provided the council with an updated Audit Completion report, together with a final version of the Accounts published in advance of the next meeting of Audit and Governance for information. 

Mazars identified there are no matters arising on the management override of controls or from work on revenue recognition.  Mazars have not identified any material errors or uncertainties in the financial statements or highlighted any indication of material estimation error in respect of defined benefit liability valuation. 

Responding the publication of final accounts, Debbie Mitchell, Chief Finance Officer, said:

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.

“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.” 

Opportunities at first York Council meeting for 8 months look set to be squandered.

4 Tips For Hosting a Successful Virtual Event - FindSpark

The York Council will hold a “virtual” Council meeting on 29th October. It will be the first since the start of the pandemic.

Those hoping for glimpses of firm leadership and evidence of cross party cooperation will be disappointed.

The agenda is dominated by bureaucracy.

ian-floyd-city-york-council | YorkMix
Ian Floyd

A replacement for the long departed Chief Executive will be announced. Ian Floyd will be announced as “Chief Operating Officer” although apparently the Labour leader decided to boycott the interview process. Instead Trades Union officials observed the proceedings (and pronounced that they were satisfied with the process).

The ill-timed reorganisation of local government boundaries will take a step forward, “minor amendments” to the constitution (reducing still further accountability) will be tabled, and polling stations will be changed (and no there aren’t actually any elections scheduled).

The rest is mostly a ritual look backwards although Andy D’agorne has raised his head above the parapet on controversial transport initiatives such as the double resurfacing of Tadcaster Road, the failed Bishopthorpe Road closure and the underused Monk Bar taxi service.

Will anyone be able to nail these mistakes? We doubt that those using “Zoom” will manage to do so.

A report from the Executive member with responsibility for housing, completely fails to identify the problems with re-letting services and the growing number of empty properties.

It is not just under-used Council houses that are at issue.

Homeless people have tried to get access to long term empty properties like Willow House for temporary use, only to be “cold shouldered” by Councillors.

Willow House

No mention is made of the senior management level vacancies in the housing department which have contributed to the decline in standards.

Probably what takes the biscuit though,  for posturing and time wasting, is a contribution, in the form of a motion, from Labour.

It claims that it wants to see  Councillors “acting responsibly and collaboratively at all times”.

 It then proposes unilateral changes to delegated budgets. £100,000 would be sequestered from wards and allocated centrally in some unnamed way to “voluntary groups working with the vulnerable”. 

This is not a Marcus Rashford style attempt to ease the burdens of those hit by the pandemic.

Instead it would rob the least well-off wards like Westfield of the resources needed to identify and address local needs.

One of the successes, of the Councils approach, has been the local “hubs” which have provided neighbourhood level support over the last few months. They have been supplemented by other initiatives like surplus food giveaways some of which have had financial support from some ward budgets.

In addition, the Council allocated £1.25 million to a local hardship fund earlier in the year.

Zoom Meeting GIFs | Tenor

Perhaps if Labour Councillors want to build up another hardship fund then they might consider donating 20% of their pay?

That would put them on a par with many workers in the City who have suffered a similar – or higher – reduction in income. Councillors are, after all, attending fewer meetings these days and their costs are therefore much reduced.  Indeed, for some, this will be the first meeting they have “attended” since February.

A 20% reduction in pay across the board would produce a fund of over £100,000.

Likely to happen?

In New Zealand maybe?

In the UK, less so we suspect!

Where next for head of York Council services?

Chief Executive Coffee Mugs, I'm A Chief Executive What's Your ...

A meeting later today will consider the next steps in replacing the York Councils Chief Executive. The last post holder was made redundant earlier in the year, following an extended period of sick leave.

Interim arrangements have applied in the interim.

The Council will feel that the arrangements worked reasonably well during the COVID crisis although the authority was criticised for poor communications as well as secrecy on several matters of public interest.

There is never a good time for major structural change although the current post pandemic period – with the threat of further major change being driven by the “devolution” debate – means that stability is the most urgent requirement. An independent Local Government Association analysis of he plans comes to the same conclusions

It seems that the Council will opt to appoint a “Chief Operating Officer” (COO) who would have a less strategic and ambassadorial role that the last post holder. Officials concentrating on service delivery would be a welcome step forward although the implication that the strategic role would fall on senior Councillors might be less welcome in the light of recent controversial investment decisions.

One thing we are clear about is that the suggestion that the COO should have NINE direct reports is ridiculous .

York Council navel gazing day

With City eyes focusing on how well the retail economy will perform today, the Council is taking the chance to slip through a restructuring of its management team.

West Offices face major shake up after lock-down ends

The changes are part of the continuing fall out following the premature departure of the Authorities last Chief Executive.

A meeting today will formally adopt a temporary structure. One of the aims is to save over £80,0000 a year in management costs.

It has already made one disastrous decision in appointing a “Director of Governance”. That post has presided over a drift into even great secrecy in decision making with one of the incumbents first initiatives being to stop the publication of answers to Freedom of Information requests.

This followed on from the previous Councils decision not to invite written questions and to publish the answers following Council meetings.

The long term problem of decisions being taken without consultation has been further compounded during the lock-down. The majority of decisions are now being announced on the Councils web site without any prior notification (much less any opportunity for residents to have any input). Background papers are published on the same day that the decision is announced

The proposed interim structure would effectively see the acting Chief Executive – or Chief Operating Operator as the title is being restyled – with 9 direct reports. That is an unworkable structure, which totally misses the opportunity to have a “Head of Paid Service” with mainly strategic & leadership objectives.

There is little option but to continue the existing arrangements until the City has negotiated the health crisis.

Lock-down saw the best and worst of local authority traits. High levels of commitment to public services from junior staff; indecision and, in some cases, invisibility from some managers.

The Council will need to learn the lessons of the last 6 months.

It must then restructure, and recruit, to address identified failings.

York Council management restructuring plans revealed

Hard on the heels of the retirement of the Chief Executive, the York Council has revealed how it hopes to recoup the costs of the early retirement exercise.

The post of Director of Finance and Investment will be deleted. This was the post traditionally styled as the City Treasurer. More junior staff will absorb this work.

The present Director has been acting as Chief Executive for over 9 months now and he will continue in that role.

More consultation with stakeholders is promised before any new structure is implemented.

The restructuring will save about £86,000 a year in salary costs

Details of the plans can be found by clicking here

York Council Chief Executive’s retirement confirmed

Cost of pension contributions will be just over £400,000

Following the early retirement of Ms Mary Weastell, Cllr Keith Aspden, Leader of the Council commented:

Council statement

“Ms Weastell’s early retirement has given the City of York Council the opportunity to consider a restructure of the Council’s corporate management team. As part of this, we have been able to identify ways to save money through efficiencies and these proposals will ensure that costs can be met through existing budgets with no additional impact for the taxpayer.

“This will also ensure our senior team focus on the areas that are important to the city and that a consultation is able to be brought forward swiftly. Our ambitious council plan requires significant investment, and to achieve this it is right that we review the best way of delivering for the city to make the most of our available resources.”

Debbie Mitchell, Head of Finance, confirmed:

“As an open and transparent council, we want to share how much Ms Weastell has received as part of her early retirement.  There are strict rules in place that govern payments due to individuals and, in line with these statutory requirements; the council has incurred costs of c £404k.  The majority of this sum around £330k is statutory payments and pension strain costs to the authority that have to be paid. 

“The Council will commence consultation to make at least £81k of savings per annum with a paper published today to the Staffing Matters and Urgency Committee to begin that process.  Full details will be presented in the annual accounts as usual.”

So farewell another York Chief Executive?

It seems, at the York Council, that the head of the paid service is changed almost as often as the Council Leader. On average they seem to last for less than 3 years. The current post holder was appointed in late 2016 and lasted only until the May 2019 elections.

She was taken ill shortly afterwards and not seen again at West Offices.

Now the media are speculating about a £400,000 payoff to facilitate her  “early retirement”.

Mary Weastell was the former Chief Executive of the much smaller Selby Council. Her promotion represented a risk by the York Council.  She maintained a relatively low key image up the point in September 2017 when she recommended that the Leader of the opposition and another experienced Councillor be sacked as Executive members.

The allegations against both were subsequently found to be bogus.

Confidence was undermined.

Ironically, those falsely accused were to be returned in May 2019 as the new leaders of the Council.

The LibDem led Council has had an awkward few months.

Street public service standards fell in the summer as inexperienced new executive members struggled with their portfolio responsibilities. There was an expectation that some of the suspect decisions of the previous years would be jettisoned but financially risky decisions were confirmed on the future of the Guildhall, and more recently, on how the Castle Piccadilly development would proceed.

Other projects seemed to stall. The Community Stadium has had more opening dates announced than goals scored by York City while large numbers of empty properties remained on the Councils books. The older persons accommodation project similarly ground to a halt. Many residents were antagonised by the decision to raise Councillor pay by 18% and the extension of the  lease for the controversial Spark container village strained the credibility of many.

But, in many ways more seriously, on the professional officer side of the Council, errors started to creep into published reports. Earlier in the week it transpired that vulnerable tenants had been told that their garden care scheme was being abandoned, apparently without any senior manager oversight.

There has been some  good new of course . Generally, the City has coped well with recent period of poor weather. The Councils budget papers were put into the public domain earlier and one Executive Councillor broke the habits of a generation by determining contract awards at a public decision session.

The LibDems had promised more openness prior to the local elections. They were urged in June to publish the (anonymised) information on which they based a decision on whether to fund the cost of early retirements and other severance packages.

They have not done so.

As a result, information has been leaked by opposition politicians determined to gain an advantage through the inevitable innuendo that accompanies large expenditure revelations.

The Council has backed itself into a corner.

Irrespective of any non-disclosure agreements that may have been signed, it cannot now even explain publicly the scale of any pay-out and how it has been calculated. Most of the expenditure may simply reflect pension costs over an extended period. We may never know.

There is a potential conflict between an employees right to personal privacy – even more important when someone is trying to address a health issue – and the legitimate interests of taxpayers in ensuring that any deals are fair and reasonable.

There is no convincing scrutiny of decisions taken behind closed doors.

So the Council should in future agree to make public information about the scale of any payments being authorised and the justification for them.

There is no need to identify individuals. We have seen recently, at national level, how the abrasive and intrusive attention of the media can have tragic consequences.

But a more balanced and understanding approach to the public interest is needed from the York Council.

Continuing concerns over Chief Executives health in York

It is nearly 6 months since the Chief Executive of the City of York Council went on sick leave. The problem arose shortly after the May local elections and left the largely inexperienced new Council with inadequate senior management capacity.

The result was that there was a lack of direction during the summer period with the standard of several public services noticeably falling.

The Council drifted into several decisions, including a £20 million Guildhall redevelopment contract, without the rigorous reappraisal that a new administration, acting with the advantage of experienced advisors, might have chosen to approach differently.

The Council must now consider whether to continue with a temporary Chief Executive – a senior officer “acting up” – or whether to move to something more permanent.

Long service Chief officers in local government are entitled to 6 months sick leave on full pay followed by 6 months on half pay. So potentially if the Chief Executive continues to be absent there will be funding available in the budget to cover any backfill.

Not an easy decision and the health of employees must always be a paramount consideration.

But York taxpayers will now expect to see a roadmap published which shows a way back to having a full management team in place in the City.

There are simply too many decisions coming along (including the completion of the Community Stadium, the Guildhall, York Central, York Bypass improvements etc.) to allow a continued policy drift.

The York Council will consider the future of its Chief Executive post next week

York Council indecision on new Chief Executive?

IndecisionYork seems likely to be without a permanent replacement for its Chief Executive for at least another 6 months.

Papers published for a meeting taking place on 1st February reveal that a review of the Council’s management structure, commissioned last June, has apparently still not been concluded.

The report blames ongoing financial pressures for the delays, although the Chief Executives post  has been filled on a temporary basis (at full salary) for over 6 months.

It now appears that the report on a new structure may now be available in March. A £150,000 a year saving on salary costs is being achieved from 1st April by deleting a post dealing with “transformation and change”

Staff working in the Chief Executives Department are being transferred to other management groups suggesting that the Council may be thinking of abolishing the role of Chief Executive altogether.  

The Council will, however, now move to appoint a permanent Director of Public Health on a salary of around £100,000. 

The Council will also make a permanent appointment to the post of “City and Environmental Services”. Essentially this is the role formerly held by Bill Woolley who retired over three years ago. It is responsible for planning and transport policy.  The post will also attract a pay level of around £100,000 pa. The Council says that to minimise recruitment costs this post will be “advertised externally on City of York Council Jobs Website and promoted through the Council social media channels”.  Minimal advertising of vacancies is usually a tactic that a Council adopts when it has “someone in mind” for the post.

Recent events – including the Councils response to the flooding crisis – suggest that there is a lack of effective leadership in the authority.  Taking over 12 months to find a permanent appointment for the post which is responsible for driving the administrative side of the Council is, at best, complacent and at worst negligent.

The York Council is now desperately short of experienced management capacity.

Councillors need to act quickly and decisively to fill the void.