Cambridge and South Cambs council leaders demand Mayor Palmer ‘comes clean’ over speedy exit of £150,000 a year combined authority chief executive

Mayor James Palmer (left) with (top right) Cllr Lewis Herbert, Cllr Bridget Smith and (bottom right)

Mayor James Palmer (left) with (top right) Cllr Lewis Herbert, Cllr Bridget Smith and (bottom right) departed combined authority chief executive Martin Whiteley. Will next week's combined authority provide answers to why Mr Whiteley upped and left so rapidly? IMAGE: Archant - Credit: Archant

Two Cambridgeshire council leaders today call for Mayor James Palmer to come clean over the rapid – and surprise – departure of the £150,000 year chief executive of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.

Councillor Lewis Herbert, Labour leader of Cambridge City Council and Councillor Bridget Smith, Lib Dem leader of South Cambs District Council, want more details from Mayor Palmer than he has so far been prepared to release.

Chief executive Martin Whiteley returned from holiday last month and suddenly left with Mayor Palmer explaining his departure only in terms of him having decided the “time is right to move on to new challenges”.

But that explanation – squeezed out of Mayor Palmer 10 days after Mr Whiteley began a period of ‘gardening leave’ (he’s being paid until October 1) has failed to satisfy Cllr Herbert and Cllr Smith.

They’ve tabled a motion to next Wednesday’s board meeting of the combined authority – of which they are both members - demanding Cambridgeshire and Peterborough residents and councillors across the county “be told the truth by Mayor Palmer over the recent ‘departure’ of Martin Whiteley in August.”

In a statement they said: “We believe that evidence points to it being a dismissal by the mayor.

“This would breach the combined authority constitution which is quite clear that only the full combined authority can make a decision to dismiss the chief executive.”

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They added: “We take the view that the combined authority is departing far too often from the agreed devolution deal and its own constitution. “

The two leaders say that signs pointing to a dismissal by the mayor include

-“the suddenness and secretiveness of the process and no publication of details on any deal, including whether compensation was paid to the chief executive”.

They also said no report on Mr Whiteley’s departure is being made either to next week’s board meeting or to the scrutiny committee two days before “and nothing in writing to combined authority board members or shared within the organisation.”

They say the departure of the chief executive adds to the list of senior positions at the combined authority with no permanent post holders including the vacant director of infrastructure and transport and director of finance roles.

Both leaders say that such is the lack of information coming from Mayor Palmer that the first members knew of the appointment of former Soham county councillor Paul Raynes to a director’s role and Mr Whiteley’s departure were through my reports throughout August.

“It has disturbed us that recent senior staff changes have occurred without any written communication with board members or formal public statements, with details carried by the Cambs Times newspaper on major appointments and the chief executive before any information was shared or reported to the board,” says their statement.

“The combined authority also agreed to create and rent a large office in Alconbury in the summer, but it is currently being run increasingly from Ely where the mayor’s office is. “

Both council leaders now want an independent review of the combined authority to include delivery objectives for 2018/2019; governance, top to bottom staffing, operations and project delivery.

“It is only by commissioning an outside body to conduct such a review that board members, partner organisations and the public gain sufficient assurance as to its impact, independence and transparency,” says their statement.

Other parts of the motion include a review of the “100 plus commitments made in year one, where they are going and what priority each gets - they cannot all be progressed immediately now”.

And they want “re-engagement with councils to get specific inputs and an officer input from each, and re-establish the partnership working which underpinned the original devolution”.

Legal officer Kim Sawyer and John Hill, chief executive of East Cambs District Council, have been appointed as joint acting chief executives until March 31 next year – unless a new permanent chief executive is appointed in the meantime.

Board papers show the “costs of these interim arrangements up to March 31, 2019 are estimated at £81,000 including on costs.

“This includes a payment of £43,547 to East Cambridgeshire District Council and acting up allowances of £28,908 plus on costs”.