Eight recommendations to deal with Thanet council governance failings and hostility within the top management team have been agreed this evening (May 19) – including a restructure of the corporate management team to create a role responsible for HR (human resources) and the requirement for chief executive Madeline Homer to enter into a formal coaching/mentoring arrangement.
Last year external auditors Grant Thornton issued a report branding relationships between the authority’s top officers as in “serious breakdown” and listing a catalogue of failures within the council, including using disciplinary action against staff raising complaints; attempting to discredit criticism in independent reports; draining finances due to disciplinary and tribunal actions and causing significant reputational harm to those involved in prolonged grievance processes.
Thanet District Council unanimously agreed to Grant Thornton’s four statutory recommendations – including bringing in an independent Monitoring Officer to carry out a risk assessment of the current employment tribunal claims and proposed actions including a detailed financial analysis of the options available to the council.
The report by that Independent Monitoring Officer, Quentin Baker, was discussed by councillors tonight and a ‘summary’ version has now been published which highlights concerns such as the personal relationship between chief exec Madeline Homer and Director of Communities Gavin Waite; the hostile relationship between the top four senior officers which has seen one dismissed and the other exit with severance pay after a wrongful suspension and lodging of a bullying complaint and the pay out of more than £1.5m for redundancy or employment tribunal deals between 2015-2021.
In the summary Mr Baker looks at the failures and the emergence in 2019 of a serious break-down in the relationships between the four officers comprising the Corporate Management Team (CMT) – Madeline Homer CEO, Tim Willis Dep Chief Executive, Gavin Waite Corporate Director of Communities and Tim Howes Corporate Director of Governance & Monitoring Officer.
On two occasions disciplinary proceedings were launched against members of the CMT -one of which resulted in a serious disciplinary sanction against Monitoring Officer Tim Howes, leading to his dismissal last month and the other ending with a public apology and £280k severance deal for deputy chief Tim Willis who left the council last October.
The costs associated with handling these grievances and disciplinaries is in excess of £730,000 and expected to rise further as a number of matters remain extant and unresolved.
Mr Baker says: “Incorrect processes have been used and credible advice not followed” and there has been a “failure by senior officers to properly engage and inform elected members.”
Mr Baker says this breakdown at the top resulted in “collateral damage and dysfunction affecting the wider officer group and councillors.”
The report notes that “there is little evidence of any significant recent improvement and during the period of preparing the lessons learned report further matters of concern have arisen.”
Key concerns include the serious breakdown in relationships of the four senior officers with a number of interlinked instances of whistleblowing and grievances which in some cases were without adequate or in some cases any, supporting evidence.
A lack of appropriate and lawful processes for dealing with Grievances and Disciplinary matters involving Chief Officers is noted as well as a failure to manage whistleblowing cases, grievances and disciplinary cases and their outcomes promptly and systematically.
Mr Baker says there was also a failure by the General Purposes Committee to follow through with agreed outcomes and a failure to involve councillors at an appropriate stage and with sufficient detail of information.
The report says: “The most significant single element of the organisational malaise which has affected TDC from 2018-19 has been the dysfunction within the CMT (top management team) itself.
“For reasons which aren’t fully clear, during 2019 the working relationships between this group of officers became hostile, combative and distrustful. There is no doubt that a schism formed between on the one hand, the Chief Executive (Madeline Homer), The Corp Director of Communities (Gavin Waite), Director of Governance – Monitoring Officer (Tim Howes) and on the other, the Dep Chief Executive – S.151 Officer (Tim Willis).
“The observations made by some of the external investigators and others identify a level of animosity which fomented between the four individuals and which materially impaired their ability to make rational, dispassionate business decisions in the best interests of TDC.”
‘Close personal relationship’
Mr Baker says that among the aggravating causes was “the emergence of the close personal relationship between Madeline Homer and Gavin Waite which was for some time during 2018-19 the source of much gossip and speculation both amongst staff within the authority and more widely on the internet, which is likely to have impacted upon the dynamic of the small CMT.
“Although there is no prohibition on such relationships it is widely acknowledged that robust and transparent arrangements must be put in place so as to mitigate the risk that others will perceive favouritism. The steps taken were insufficient.”
Leader and chief exec ‘mistrust’
Mr Baker also noted that the relationship between the chief executive and the elected council leader: “is best characterised as lacking trust and mutual respect.” He notes that the mistrust results in: “information (being) tightly controlled, often on the basis of commercial confidentiality and the perceived risk of information being leaked by councillors.”
Mr Baker adds: “The review has identified specific examples of where significant information has been withheld from all councillors or not disseminated to the appropriate body of councillors.
“An example of this included an investigation report into a whistle-blower complaint regarding the handling of a grievance brought by an officer. The report contained information highly critical of the process used and the decisions taken by officers. The report wasn’t brought to the attention of the relevant group of elected members and there is no formal record of the reasons for withholding that information.
“Another example of the pervading approach is highlighted by an incident where the Chief Executive lodged a complaint against the Cabinet member for Finance alleging that they had breached the Members’ Code of Conduct by submitting a request for information regarding the salary levels/pay awards of the CMT Officers.
“The submission, by a local authority chief executive, of a complaint against a Cabinet Member is uncommon and would generally be regarded as an indicator of a worrying level of conflict between officers and councillors.
“In the circumstances, as set out by the experienced investigator, it would appear that the decision to launch the complaint was ill advised and unjustified due to the lack of any evidence of any breach.”
Grievances and a £1.5m bill
Referring to the wrongful suspension of previous deputy chief executive Tim Willis, Mr Baker says it: “indicate(s) a lack of respect for basic procedural governance and a willingness to ignore professional advice that didn’t fit the desired outcome.
“On a wider organisational level there is evidence of significant numbers of senior staff members having left the organisation under settlement or redundancy agreements over the last four years and there are recent examples of senior officers raising grievances regarding senior management.”
He says there is urgent need to rebuild Human Resources advice and support for management and staff and points to a significant sum of £1,590,151 spent on settlements due to redundancy or employment tribunals between the financial years 2015/16 to 2020/21
He also noted the concerns raised over project management and rising costs of the Berth 4/5 replacement at Ramsgate Port.
The recommendations – which will be put in place with immediate effect – include
- Review of the TDC Constitution to ensure/clarify/reinforce the need for sharing of information between officers and Councillors and to engage councillors in the work of the authority. This will include establishing an Employment Committee to consider strategic Human Resources and a review of the arrangements for handling Whistle-blower complaints.
- Restructure of Senior Management Team with a view to creating at least one additional Corporate Director role to include responsibility for HR, This will also include a review of the existing arrangements to manage the potential conflict of interest arising from the close personal relationship between the CEO and Director of Operations.
- Development Work for Member Officer including team building and improved responsiveness to information requests from councillors to officers and ensuring that all Senior Councillors are briefed on the contents of all reports produced in the context of the CMT dispute.
- Coaching/ Mentoring Programme for CEO and senior management team to undertake team building
- Introduction of Regular Staff Survey and other staff feedback forums
- Review of the HR resource within TDC.
- Undertake an independent review/audit of the Berth 4/5 project from its inception to the present day with a view to identifying the causes of delay and cost overruns which have beset the project
- Establish an Independent Assurance/Assistance Panel to oversee the swift implementation of the recommendations and to act as a source of independent support/advice during the recovery phase
County Councillor and former district councillor Karen Constantine said: “As an HR and employment law specialist with more than 30 years experience, I have long advocated for councillors to have oversight of employment issues at TDC, as routinely happens at other councils.
“On one notable occasion in a very unprofessional act, Madeline Homer telephoned me at home to threaten me that she ‘would report me to standards if I didn’t retract my public statement on the matter.’ Subsequently I resigned and later undertook an FOI which shows I was never reported to standards.
“The Quentin Baker report clearly indicates that Madeline Homer’s conduct is not of a sufficiently high standard, I welcome the coaching intervention suggested, but I am seriously concerned about the spiralling costs and the legacy of lamentable decision making and the additional pull on public taxes. Little wonder we are closing our public toilets and our streets are filthy when our contribution through rates is diverted into questionable deals and expensive pay offs
“As I still have day to day dealings with Ms Homer as Ramsgate’s County Councillor, I often wonder if the legitimate and serious matters I thoughtfully raise with her are ignored due to an ongoing bias against me? I am perplexed at her lack of interest and involvement in a serious matter which is now subject to a Judicial Review to be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice on 28th June. Another costly bill for the taxpayer to fund.”