Ministers have been accused of encouraging “malicious and vindictive” personal attacks on local government officials.
Alace, the union for senior council officers, has criticised local government minister Bob Neill after he commented on claims that South Somerset DC paid £569,000 on the departure of chief executive Phil Dolan.
Mr Dolan left the council a year ago to make way for a shared management team with East Devon DC of the kind which ministers have advocated as a key way for local authorities to avoid cutting frontline services.
However, Mr Neill told the Daily Telegraph, who printed a picture of “fat cat” Mr Dolan, his home and a partial address, that the “eye-watering” figure was “completely unacceptable” and raised “serious questions about the financial credibility of the council”.
Alace secretary Mary Orton described the newspaper piece as “a sickening, callous and calculated misrepresentation of the facts and a gratuitous personal attack on a public servant”.
She added: “It is very ill-becoming of our government that they have pro-actively encouraged and fanned the flames of this sort of malicious and vindictive reporting.”
Ms Orton said coverage of this kind was a diversion from the real challenge facing councils and called on the government and the Local Government Association to “speak out strongly” in support of senior staff. “It is time that ministers set the tone by showing the public that they value and respect us,” she said.
South Somerset’s chief executive has also defended the council against claims that it lacked financial credibility.
“You only have to look at the council’s [inspection] scores under ‘use of resources’ where it has consistently been one of the best in the country,” he said.
More than two-thirds of the money paid by the council was required by employment law or by pension scheme regulations set by the Department for Communities and Local Government and Mr Williams said the council had been “castigated” for obligatory payments that were an issue for all public sector employers, including DCLG.
The authority was obliged to pay Mr Dolan his £133,878 salary and £6,000 benefits in kind for the year, £23,122 for his notice period, £239,000 to the Local Government Pension Scheme under rules set by DCLG and £10,700 in statutory redundancy compensation.
The only part decided by the council was a £156,676 discretionary redundancy payment. DCLG regulations allow a top-up the statutory element and councils must state their policy which then applies to all staff.
Mr Williams said discretionary redundancy policies were set based on “affordability, pay-back period, the quality of employer they want to be seen as in the local marketplace, and ongoing good employment relation”.
Mr Williams also pointed out that Mr Dolan had left as part of the council’s pursuit of savings through shared services.
“One would hope ministers understand that in moving an organisation to a position of a smaller workforce or shared services that it is a question of pace,” he said. “Do you want to it to be something that happens when a vacancy arises or you want to it happen in a shorter time-frame?
“South Somerset, if not most councils, understands that the new coalition want things to happen in a shorter time-frame than perhaps the previous government did.”
Gary Porter (Con), leader of South Holland DC which shares a chief executive with Breckland DC and who is leading the Local Government Association’s work on shared services, said there were inevitable “opportunity costs” to shared services because employment contracts had to be respected.
Although sharing costs could be “negligible” if there was already a vacancy “you can lose the saving [by] waiting around for somebody to leave”, he said.
“I share Bob Neill’s concerns about the expense but that is still worth a price worth paying if we can get the changes we need,” he said. “We simply cannot afford to maintain individual management teams in every single district council.”