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When my mother-in-law unexpectedly sent me an edition of the Eastbourne Herald reporting the sacking of council chi...
When my mother-in-law unexpectedly sent me an edition of the Eastbourne Herald reporting the sacking of council chief executive Sari Conway, I wondered if there was a hidden message. Nonetheless, it made interesting reading.
The paper devoted nearly three pages to the story, without clearly explaining what Ms Conway had been found guilty of. But, as she was dismissed on the recommendation of LGC columnist Rodney Brooke - the nearest thing to a living legend in local government - we may assume the case against her was robust.
Mr Brooke was chief executive at Westminster City Council when Dame Shirley Porter was leader, and he knows a bit about unfair dismissal.
But of most interest was the claim that this was the first time any council had followed the statutory procedures for the dismissal of its chief executive to their conclusion. These procedures, introduced by regulations issued in 1993, stipulate a chief executive may only be sacked on the report and recommendation of an independent person agreed by both sides. As this protection is now being extended to monitoring officers and chief finance officers, the Eastbourne case has wider relevance.
Much coverage of the case has focused on the cost and complexity of the process. Eastbourne councillors are demanding a change in the law after the council spent£162,000 on the inquiry into Ms Conway. They claim she would have been sacked in June of last year, for a total cost of no more than£31,000, had they been able to follow the procedures that apply to other council officers.
But those to whom the statutory protections are now being extended should note Ms Conway was eventually sacked and that she had been under suspension for four months before the appointment of the independent person. Being a council chief executive has never been more precarious.
One of the most well attended events at the annual Local Government Association conference is the annual general meeting of the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives. The meeting is a morbid but riveting affair. The main business is a report on the number of chief executives who have fallen out with their employers during the past year and the terms agreed for their departure.
Following recent growth in the attrition rate, this is now a lengthy report.
Vacancies arise in unhappy circumstances so often that there is now no stigma attached to leaving following a falling out with members. It is widely believed new constitutions will make matters worse.
The simple reality for chief executives is that when you lose the confidence of members, you can no longer function and have to go. In a democracy, the politicians are supreme, even if they are sometimes wrong. This is why the statutory protections are of limited value and why Ms Conway was probably mistaken to hold out to the end, when it must have been obvious her time at Eastbourne was over.
Incidentally, one of the allegations originally made against Ms Conway was that her relationship with the editor of the Eastbourne Herald was too close. Regular readers of the Camden New Journal will testify that I am at least safe on that count.
-Steve Bundred, chief executive, Camden LBC.
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