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”.
Last year The Press revealed former council chief executive Ms Weastell was awarded a £400,000 payout at a secret meeting and had taken 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had also lodged an employment tribunal complaint against the council and council leader Keith Aspden, which was withdrawn after the payout was agreed.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.
Independent auditors Mazars say
- 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.
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 said: “I welcome this updated Audit Completion report, together with a final version of the accounts in advance of the next meeting of Audit and Governance.
“Despite challenging financial circumstances and continued reduction in government funding we have been able to deliver a programme of £7.9m savings and protected key services within our £123m budget. Alongside this, we have invested in key capital projects totalling £86m.
“Our prioritising of frontline services was reflected in a manifesto commitment to deliver savings in senior management roles to protect vital support for residents. I’m pleased we have been able to achieve this with a corporate restructure that is delivering £200k of savings each year a total of £600k in the council period.
“The external auditors have been looking at some technical processes around this saving and we welcome conversations on how we can improve governance in the council. This is an area we have prioritised as part of our restructure and have appointed a new Director of Governance.
“These outstanding matters relate to 0.04% of the council budget and I’m pleased the auditors have recognised the time and effort that officers and members have given to deliver for residents during this difficult time.”