Two weeks after it was revealed in the York Press that Lib-Dem council leader Keith Aspden had agreed a secret payoff deal to a senior member of staff, believed to be the council’s Chief Executive, of £400,000, there remains a veil of silence on the issue from the Lib-Dem leader and his party.
The Chief Executive has been on sick leave since a few days after Cllr Aspden took charge of the council in May of last year, amid rumours that he felt unable to work with her following an incident last January when Mr Aspden was sacked from the council’s Executive for discussing the personal details of candidates for a non-political council job, in a York pub with Liberal Democrat party members. The investigative process was facilitated by the Chief Executive.
Labour’s Micklegate councillor Pete Kilbane posed a series of questions to Cllr. Aspden on the allegations that he had refused to work with Ms Weastell, but the results were disappointing.
“The council leader has refused to answer a number of questions that are of significant public interest in terms of financial probity, appropriate conduct and taxpayer value for money.
“I asked the Leader if, given the standards case in which he was found to have breached the councillor code of conduct, he gave assurances to the Chief Executive that he would be able to work constructively with her once he became council leader. He chose not to answer.
“I also asked him what actions he himself took as leader to address the underlying causes of the Chief Executive’s sickness absence in order to support her return to work. Again, no answer.
“I asked if Employment Tribunal proceedings had been issued against the Council, as has been reported, and if so, were any claims made against Cllr. Aspden personally. No answer.
“The silence around the reported senior officer payoff is deafening. The unwillingness of the Leader to discuss the Chief Executive’s absence from work is very worrying from a council leader who has already proved himself willing to play fast and loose with the rules governing appropriate conduct for councillors”.
Former council leader Chris Steward, who worked with Cllr. Aspden under the previous Tory-Lib Dem Coalition and knows the current Leader very well, claims Cllr. Aspden refused to work with the Chief Executive from May 2019. He further claims that she is the ‘senior officer’ who has been paid off to retire early.
Under council guidance, if a council officer is made redundant or an exit payment of more than £100,000 is agreed, the final decision needs to be made at a full council meeting held in public. However, these rules do not apply to early retirement.
“The longer questions go unanswered the more rumours will grow of a fractured relationship between Cllr. Aspden and the Chief Executive,” added Cllr. Kilbane.“The Leader committed this administration to being open and transparent and on a host of questions that he is legally able to answer, he’s chosen to remain silent. One has to ask why?
“We will continue to ask questions to get to the bottom of what has gone on. Until they have been answered, York residents cannot be reassured over the use of their council tax money.”
Last week, Labour’s York Central MP Rachael Maskell weighed in on the issue, stating: “I am deeply concerned over the transparency of the council, not least when there were clearly issues to be addressed, since reports state that a case was filed at an employment tribunal.
“We know that vital services in York continue to be slashed, charities are struggling to survive, and yet £400,000 has been awarded without proper scrutiny. Many residents across York struggle to pay their council tax and will be incensed to learn that it has been used this way. I believe serious questions of the council leader and his deputy must now be asked.”