HAMPSHIRE County Council leader Ken Thornber has defended his council over the appointment of new chief executive Andrew Smith. An article in Private Eye starts: "The image of Hampshire as a county where dim, complacent councillors let smart-arse officers run the show has not been allayed by the debacle of the new chief executive's appointment." The previous edition claimed Andrew Smith, director of property, business and regulatory services, got the £199,000-a-year top job "despite a district auditor's report on how he and two other senior officers had illegally awarded work worth £1.2m to seven IT consultants without putting it out to tender, as the council's own and EU rules require." Private Eye said one consultant, Bill Newman, had been hired as programme director on the Hants Direct call centre project, at an estimated "£413,939 for the period June 2005 to March 2008, at rates of up to £900 a day. "Newman was involved in the selection of the other six highly-paid consultants, who by an amazing coincidence all came from the same agency as him – Commerce Partners." Private Eye claims that the district auditor's report was not made public until after Smith's appointment and that "four of the seven councillors who sat on the cross-party panel which appointed Smith had not bothered to read it." Furthermore, the backbench councillors who "rubber-stamped" the appointment "weren't even told it existed until after their votes were in," claimed the article in the Rotten Boroughs section. In a letter to Private Eye, Mr Thornber countered: "It is good to see that Private Eye is sticking to the rule of 'never let the facts get in the way of a good story'. "I wonder who was being 'dim and complacent' when the Rotten Boroughs piece on Hampshire was put together for edition 1196? "Had a simple fact-checking exercise taken place you would have found that members of the appointment panel had been briefed on the audit report into alleged misconduct and that the full report was made public the Monday before we got out our 'rubber stamps' to approve the appointment of our next chief executive. Ample time for all to read it!" On a more serious note, HCC has issued the results of an investigation into the alleged misconduct of three officers over alleged non-compliance with council standing orders and procurement rules relating to the 'Hants Direct' call centre project. In a statement last Friday it says that, in light of the findings of the investigation and the lessons learned, HCC's cabinet is being asked to approve measures to improve the process of contract management across the council. According to the statement, the original investigation had concluded that "none of the three officers had acted wilfully to make any personal gain and the investigators and Cabinet had agreed there was no gross misconduct. "However, the investigation had found that compliance procedures had not been followed resulting in a breach of council standing orders and European Procurement Regulations." Subsequent hearings into the case have now been completed. In the case of Mr Smith, chairman of the board responsible for delivering the project, the statement says: "The decision following a preliminary investigation by the chief executive was that there was no misconduct and the matter could be concluded informally. "The chief executive concluded that there were lessons to be learned in relation to project governance and reporting arrangements and gave advice, which was agreed and taken on board by the director." Due to retire at the end of the year, chief executive Peter Robertson said: "Ultimately, as head of the paid service, I take responsibility for everything that happens at officer level and I feel that there are lessons the whole organisation can learn from the review of events in this case. I am reporting separately to cabinet next week on these issues." It is further stated that the investigation had found no case to answer by the head of IT and that there was no misconduct and no disciplinary action justified in the case of the business improvement and corporate IT manager, responsible for directing the project. However the employee had been left in no doubt about the financial, legal and procurement procedures on which he should work in the future. Mr Thornber concluded: "It was clear from the investigation that there was a lack of clarity over responsibility for compliance. Lessons have been learned in this case and further managerial action will be taken, particularly in relation to very complex projects such as the contact centre Hantsdirect. "It is reassuring to note that the project remains on programme and within budget and the first phase has been successfully completed. "The cabinet supports an environment that doesn't stifle innovation and understands that risks have to be balanced and managed. There are lessons for everyone in how this process has been handled. "The cabinet looks forward to Mr Smith taking up his role as chief executive and affirms its full support for him."
Thornber hits back at Private Eye
Friday 30th November 2007 12:00 am