Shock claims of “hidden agenda” to oust senior council official

A major overhaul of Rother District Council is just a “smokescreen” to get rid of a senior executive director, it has been claimed.

The planned shake-up will see the two existing executive directors replaced by one chief executive to save money and improve efficiency.

But Councillor Tony Ganly insists the real aim is to “get rid of Dr Tony Leonard”, who has served the people of Rother “impeccably” for 27 years.

Unacceptable treatment

Speaking at a meeting of the council’s licensing and general purposes committee, he said it was “quite unacceptable” for him to be treated in this way.

“Sadly, I think it’s too late to attempt to retain him,” he said. “In light of the treatment meted out to him by certain members, I imagine he would not be willing to remain at Rother District Council.”

The lively meeting, which heard claims that staff morale at the council was at an “all-time low”, was told a single chief executive could take the reins by the end of this month on an annual salary of £115,000.

The new role would be ring-fenced for a year so that only the two existing executive directors – Dr Tony Leonard and Malcolm Johnston – could apply.

“The purpose of the motion this evening is, as we all know, a smokescreen for a hidden agenda to remove an executive officer.”

Councillor Gary Curtis

However, Cllr Ganly said the process was a way to remove Dr Leonard, who he praised for being “completely non-political” and even-handed in his dealings with council matters.

“I’ve worked with – and for – large corporations around the world and have rarely come across a more professional, capable and sensible officer than Dr Leonard,” he said.

Councillor Gary Curtis agreed. “The purpose of the motion this evening is, as we all know, a smokescreen for a hidden agenda to remove an executive officer,” he said.

He insisted that Dr Leonard, together with fellow executive director, Malcolm Johnson, was a huge source of irreplaceable knowledge, without which all councillors would flounder.

“I have been privileged to have been associated with Dr Leonard over the years and feel this is not only a travesty of procedure, but a huge loss to Rother, from which we may never recover,” he added.

Claims are a “myth”

However, Councillor Kathryn Field, who presented the staff restructuring proposals on behalf of the council’s cabinet, denied there was an ulterior motive.

“I object strongly to the language ‘get rid of’ as that implies a purpose that is not what is happening here,” she said. “No-one is being got rid of in the underhand way in which you imply, Councillor Ganly. We are hoping to change the structure at the top of the organisation. It’s as simple as that.”

Cllr Field insisted it was a myth that the aim was to get rid of a senior executive director and insisted the process had been open all the way, with all parties concerned in agreement.

“The original paper that started this whole process was put to us jointly by the two executive directors, one of whom wanted to leave,” she said. “He volunteered to leave and said he would like to go and that is why we are in the position we are in now.”

Staff morale at an “all-time low”

Councillor Carl Maynard said the move threatened to further damage the resilience of the authority, which he claimed already had issues with retaining staff.

“Over 30 people have left this organisation since the (Rother) Alliance came to power and staff morale is at an all-time low.”

Cllr Maynard questioned the impact of losing experienced people at the helm and added: “When we see the pincer movement in terms of the Alliance wanting to replace the senior directors, is it any wonder at all that staff morale is as low as it is?” 

Councillor Roger Bird urged fellow councillors to read comments compiled by Unison from staff about the proposed restructuring.

“I’ve never seen a paper from Unison so damning in all of my life, although we’re told that this is all a happy family,” he said. “I would say the majority of staff are against it.”

In the document, the Unison response had questioned why staff weren’t mentioned in the restructuring report and suggested the impact of losing two executive posts had been seriously underestimated.

He also questioned the cost of involving iESE, which helps local authorities transform public services but a council official pointed out that £35,000 had been earmarked to pay for its work.

The longer-term impact of restructuring

Councillors also questioned why there wasn’t more detail on the broader council restructuring that will take place should it be agreed to replace the existing executive directors.

Councillor John Barnes argued it was important to establish how you were going to coordinate the team beneath a chief executive.

“This is particularly true at a time of pandemic when we are in no sight of a vaccine and this crisis is going to go on well into the autumn, possibly the winter months,” he said. “To pay no attention to the consequences of the day-to-day management is a bad mistake.”

However, Cllr Field said: “The situation according to our legal advice is that it’s usually – or always – the first job of a new chief executive to put such measures in place. If the person we have in mind accepts the job he’s very well placed to do this because he knows the personalities extremely well.”

The restructuring proposal was passed, with eight votes in favour to three against, and will now move forward to a meeting of the full council.

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