Finance watchdogs have launched an investigation into ‘strained relations’ between political leaders in the region, fearing it could jeopardize the effective use of taxpayers’ money.
External auditors at the West of England Combined Authority (Weca) have identified ‘risk of material weakness’ in its value for money agreements due to the ongoing power struggle between Metro Mayor Dan Norris and elected leaders of the four councils in the region.
Grant Thornton also examines a payout to a high-ranking officer understood to be a significant five-figure sum for the former infrastructure director who left last summer, as well as the assessment of other recent departures from the Weca’s management team which auditors say could be “highly problematic” to the combined authority’s ability to achieve its goals.
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It comes as an urgent ‘appeal’ meeting of the Oversight and Review Committee will be held on Tuesday May 3, following the latest ructions where council leaders from Bristol, North Somerset, South Gloucestershire, Bath and North East Somerset have launched an offer to part ways with Weca.
At a meeting on April 8, the unitary authority’s four leaders agreed to rip up and rewrite the rules governing the West of England Joint Committee – which oversees around £600m of cash flow financing prior to the creation of Weca in 2017, therefore outside its mandate. – to give them more say in these decisions.
West of England Labor Mayor Mr Norris, who leads Weca, and its chief executive Patricia Greer have warned them that the move, which includes the development of a joint committee identity separate from Weca, could put all money at risk because it would violate an insurance agreement with the Government.
Although council leaders moved forward anyway, calling the concerns ‘leaking red’, their decision to dissolve the current arrangements and produce new standing orders has been formally convened by Weca’s supervisory advisers who will consider it on Tuesday. . The notice of appeal says the document could have “far-reaching consequences” and had not been carefully scrutinized beforehand.
He wonders if the decision could “cloud the region’s representation and voice”. On Thursday (April 28), Weca’s audit committee was told that Grant Thornton was also looking into this and other issues.
A report from the listeners to members said: ‘Questions have been reported in the public domain about strained relations in the West of England. “We have identified governance arrangements impacting these relationships as a risk of material value for money weakness.
“We have determined an appropriate work plan relating to this particular risk to determine whether or not a material weakness exists.”
He said other issues being analyzed included the planned revision of the joint committee’s terms of reference which “could have implications for funding agreements between Weca and unitary authorities”. The report said the auditors’ inquiries into a severance package were “potentially significant” and that a “conflict” had existed over it.
He said the exit gain was the subject of a private Weca committee meeting in December, where audit committee chairman Cllr Geoff Gollop raised “a number of concerns”.
The report stated: “Based on her belief that there were conflicts in place, the CEO did not initially involve the two statutory officers (Supervisory Officer and Chief Financial Officer) when agreeing on an indemnity departure.
“For this reason, the CEO sought outside legal advice to help her make her decision. “The former supervisory officer felt that this work was not effective.” The Supervisory Officer and Chief Financial Officer have since left for other jobs.
The report says Grant Thornton will assess the “conflicts” of statutory agents and the decision to consult external lawyers, as well as the “steps taken to ensure that the authority has procedures in place to protect the interests of statutory agents and remove any uncertainty as to to responsibility”. .
“Contradicting legal advice was obtained by different officers at different stages of the process,” he said, adding that auditors would assess how Weca handled this conflict and what was being done to ensure that “future disputes be treated openly”.
The report said: “Clarity is required on the rationale for the severance package proposal and how the payment and its terms were constructed. In recent months, Weca has lost, or is about to lose, the services of a number of senior officers, including statutory officers.
“Given the expansion of its role and scope, the loss of continuity in this number of senior and statutory officers at the present time could prove very problematic for the proper administration of the authority and its ability to achieve goals.” He said auditors would try to identify “any underlying issues contributing to the loss of key personnel”.