Today for the first time for over 3 years, Brighton & Hove City Council is without a permanent Chief Executive. Our month old Council has announced they intend to recruit a new CEO so any prospect of managing without one or of sharing with Lewes or East Sussex seems off the cards. The recruitment process will cost all of us a great deal of money and loss of momentum at a time when local Government is under intense pressure. The challenge of recruiting someone credible to work for a minority administration in what must seem a toxic city as far as senior civil servants are concerned should not be underestimated. Unless this Council acts in a different way to the previous 3, the appointment will be a 3-4 year post which means that those applying will either be very naïve, close to retirement (as Penny was) or looking for an interim post. None of those scenarios really works well for the city, we need a CEO able to work long term for the City, building strategic alliances with our neighbouring Councils and other Public Services at a time when funding is being cut like never before and willing to propose and carry through the difficult and unpalatable solutions that keep on being ducked so that by 2025 our city has been transformed and is organisationally fit for the 21st Century. This administration is the fourth minority Council since 2003 and the second Labour Council in that time. The first appointed Alan McCarthy, he was sacked by the Tory’s who appointed John Barradell to take over, at the time when John left without any cost to you and I, it was widely speculated that he and the Green Council did not see eye to eye on many issues. The Greens then appointed Penny Thompson, who last night signed off with her Golden goodbye.
On both occasions when our Council has sacked its CEO they have agreed terms with the well paid individual on a basis for them to leave, which has included large sums of our money and then both sides sign a compromise agreement which is also common practice in business and charities. These agreements often contain confidentiality clauses which are used to prevent the details of the financial agreements from being made public, and any information about the negotiation. However these compromise agreements rely on the employer taking into account the need for appropriate scrutiny afterwards, this is not a priority for the retiring CEO, nor for the lawyers who draw up the agreement. It is in this area where our Council has failed us all, or else they are hiding behind an agreement that is not as strict as they suggest.
Its clear from my limited correspondence with a senior member of the Labour Party in Brighton & Hove this week that they do not feel they are being unaccountable. They have been advised by a well paid QC who works for the Council and the Local Government Association who advise Councils on such matters that they “are restricted by the terms of the compromise agreement – legally restricted – from making *any* public comment”. This of course sounds fine to the lawyers who are not publicly accountable to any of us and OK to the LGA who are a private organisation funded by all local Councils, but when £270,000 of our money is involved far from fine to me and many other people. It is clear that the Council can make some public comments, after all they cannot pretend that Penny walked to work on Friday (as she stated on twitter) and then simply disappeared into the ozone. It is the precision with which that advice or guidance is delivered and interpreted which makes this Council, like their predecessors either open and accountable (we are all waiting for that) or closed and hiding behind legal advice which is not fit for this purpose.
In my view, moving forward the Council has two choices:
1) They can recruit an interim CEO for 3 or 4 years and be upfront about that with all of us.
2) They can work much harder than any of their predecessors (including the last Labour administration) to employ an individual whose selection is truly bi-partisan and publicly supported. If they take this course we need a clear public commitment by the Conservative and Green groups that barring misdemeanour or a failure to perform, that they will work with the individual selected from 2019-2023 if they hold a majority after the next election. This will then reduce the prospect of another premature termination of contract at our expense, and give the candidate the confidence that they will be allowed to make long term plans. To her credit Penny did claim to have obtained something of this nature privately, however either she was being optimistic, or the Labour group have reneged.
The third option is that Warren Morgan and his colleagues will simply repeat history because they either don’t care, or they are arrogant enough to think that they can do things better than the last 3 Councils did without any change! If we do end up with a repeat of history in June 2019, it is vital that the Council does not sign up to the same form of compromise agreement that this lot claim to have agreed to. If they are going to give away a 6 figure sum of our money, they must ensure that they can also be open about what they have done and why. There is already at least one FOI request with the Council from the Argus regarding costs, it would be a great deal cheaper to anticipate the FOI requests and widespread concerns to publish an open statement covering all areas, that way the Council looks open and accountable!