Top role at Hertsmere council cut in the face of 'financial challenges'

PUBLISHED: 10:39 27 September 2019 | UPDATED: 11:24 27 September 2019

Hertsmere Borough Council full council meeting at the Civic Offices in Borehamwood. Picture: © Blake Ezra Photography Ltd. 2012.

Hertsmere Borough Council full council meeting at the Civic Offices in Borehamwood. Picture: © Blake Ezra Photography Ltd. 2012.

© Blake Ezra Photography Ltd. (0) 208 7365868

A top management role at Hertsmere Borough Council has been axed.

Leader of the Conservative council Morris Bright said Donald Graham's job as chief executive was being cut due to "financial challenges" facing the borough.

But the Hertsmere Labour Party say the reorganisation was a "political execution" and believe it was down to Mr Graham referring expenses paid back by Cllr Bright to independent auditors.

Cllr Bright, who is also county councillor for Potters Bar West and Shenley and chairman of council-owned Elstree Film Studios, was revealed in April to have paid back £3,422.14 worth of expenses to the film studios. Most of the expenses, a total of £1,836.50 which have now been repaid, were claimed for a party Cllr Bright threw when he was awarded an MBE.

READ MORE: Leaked report on leader's expenses investigated by Hertsmere council

Hertsmere Borough Council leader Morris Bright. Photo: Hertsmere Borough Council.Hertsmere Borough Council leader Morris Bright. Photo: Hertsmere Borough Council.

But in emails obtained by a Freedom of Information request by the Labour Party in February and made to the studio's managing director Roger Morris, Donald Graham said he told Cllr Bright the expenses needed to be repaid.

When asked about this by the auditors, Cllr Bright said the reception for his MBE award was attended by councillors and staff alike so "it was not unreasonable for the costs of the reception to be met by the council".

READ MORE: Leader of Hertsmere council calls probe into his expenses 'inaccurate'

Several Conservative councillors had previously questioned the findings of the report, where the auditors warned the council it was "open to accusations that it is not sufficiently transparent about expenditure", at a meeting in July.

Hertsmere corporate director Sajida Bijle, acting as chief executive when Mr Graham was on sick leave, told the councillors the terms of reference were made with the chief executive and head of finance Mathew Banyon.

Harvey Patterson, head of legal and democratic services, said there were assurances made by the auditors BDO that the report was independent.

"We need to have respect and confidence that our auditors are doing a good job for us," Mr Patterson said at the July meeting.

The decision to cut the chief executive role, announced at a meeting on September 18, will mean an interim senior management structure will be in place while a revised structure and implementation plan is developed; and a timetable for further consultation and change management are put forward.

Cllr Bright told the meeting: "On a personal note Donald Graham is the longest serving chief executive in Hertsmere's history and we've always worked closely together throughout that time for the good of the borough.

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"I want to thank him for his hard work and commitment during his 11 years with the authority, and wish him well for the future."

An extraordinary meeting, also on September 18, put forward four proposals by opposition councillors from the Liberal Democrats and Labour.

The first - which was agreed - suggested there should be "a reasonable balance" between statutory and critical business, discussion of reports and policy, holding the executive to account and supporting the work of committees at the meetings.

And another - also agreed - called for new procedures and rules for extraordinary meetings that removed existing restrictions that mean questions from councillors and notice of motions cannot be tabled.

READ MORE: Hertsmere Borough Council meeting over leader's expenses ends in shouting match

And now the council's 'constitution and member development panel' (CMDP) will be asked to draw up formal proposals.

However proposals to make 10.30pm the 'normal finishing time' for full council meetings and for some council debates to be chaired by 'an external, honorary or professional independent chair of council' were voted down.

The meeting was called for after the chaotic end of a previous session to discuss the governance of council-owned companies two weeks ago.

Before the start of the debate Mayor Cllr Alan Plancey reminded councillors to respect their colleagues and not to interrupt them - warning them he would adjourn the meeting if necessary.

The most controversial proposal could have led to proposals for an independent chair for council debates, rather than the Mayor.

Liberal Democrat Cllr Jerry Evans, who proposed the motion, stressed that it was "proposed with full respect" for current Mayor, Cllr Rabbi Alan Plancey.

And he suggested the role of Mayor may actually be enhanced by not having to chair the debating part of the meetings.

But Conservative leader of the council Cllr Morris Bright said he needed just four words to respond - "not on our watch". And the proposal was voted down.

Meanwhile, at the scheduled meeting of Hertsmere Council later the same evening councillors agreed a change in the constitution to allow all-party groups to submit motions to the council.

The change will mean Liberal Democrats - elected to the council in May 2019 - will also be able to submit motions, without securing a cross-party motion.

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