Bankrupt Woking will appoint another temporary officer to take control of its finances, amid concerns from councillors about the transparency of the recruitment process.
The borough council, which issued a Section 114 notice in June, needs to hire a new director of finance, with the current postholder’s six-month contract ending on August 31.
While the council advertised before the current appointment for a permanent Section 151 officer, the person in charge of a council’s finances, Woking’s leader said interest had been “low” for various reasons.
Councillor Ann-Marie Barker (Lib Dem, Goldsworth Park) told a full council meeting last Tuesday (August 22) that the process to find a permanent candidate would begin in autumn as the council’s financial position became clearer.
She acknowledged the council “could have done better” in the appointment process as part of its aim to be more transparent and open, and said things would change ahead of a permanent appointment.
Councillors raised various concerns about the process of appointing the next interim Section 151 officer, Eugene Walker, also for a six-month period.
Several councillors said they were comfortable Mr Walker had the necessary experience and would be the right person to take the council through the next phase of its financial recovery.
Cllr Steve Dorsett (Conservative, Pyrford) said he was pleased the leader had made comments about issues with the process, and said he understood there were no applicants for the role so the council “went and found someone”.
He asked the meeting: “Does it pass the sniff test? If I was a resident looking at this going: ‘They’ve gone out, found a person, brought them in and the council have just rubber stamped it’.”
Cllr Stephen Oades (Lib Dem, Goldsworth Park) said he was “uncomfortable” with the process for a number of reasons, but primarily because there was only one candidate.
He said given scrutiny from the media, residents and the government, it didn’t seem to him to be “at all appropriate that only one candidate was considered”.
He also said he had never in his career come across a case where a chief finance officer did not report to a chief executive and called it “an anomaly”.
Cllr Oades said: “There will be inevitable comments that that was what would happen before, but an incidence of bad practice cannot be used as a justification for continuing bad practice.”
Cllr Leslie Rice (Lib Dem, Heathlands) claimed he had asked to see Mr Walker’s CV and been told by council officers he could not.
He said: “I find this completely unacceptable. We’re a decision-making body – this must not happen again.
“We must work cross party to ensure proper governance, proper financial controls, proper clarity and transparency across the board.
“We need to do a lot better – the people of Woking deserve this.”
Cllr Barker told the meeting Mr Walker had worked with the council previously on a consultancy basis and had an “excellent understanding” of the 24 council-owned companies, having worked with the shareholder advisory group which oversees them.
She outlined his previously held roles including as a Section 151 officer, in corporate directorship roles in other councils, and as acting chief executive at Sheffield City Council.
She also outlined the difficulties in recruiting a permanent director of finance as including skilled finance people being “few and far between” in local government and the emerging state of Woking’s finances at the time the role was last advertised, when the council was under review from central government.
Cllr Barker thanked the outgoing director of finance, saying he had “worked tirelessly” and done a “fantastic job in uncovering the true financial situation of the council”.
Brendan Arnold will leave Woking for another interim role on August 31, with Mr Walker due to start on September 1.
Councillors voted in favour of the appointment of Mr Walker by 20 votes for, with five abstentions.