THE ISSUE of secret bonus payments to chief officers at Hampshire County Council was coming under the spotlight again today.

Liberal Democrat opposition councillors tabled a question to a meeting of the full council in The Castle chamber.

Keith House, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, has repeated his calls for the resignation of the Conservative council chief, Ken Thornber.

Cllr House said Cllr Thornber should make a statement to the full council – or quit.

Cllr House, who is also leader of Eastleigh Borough Council, said: “He should consider his resignation. It is not acceptable to conduct public business behind closed doors by himself.”

The Lib Dems have already formally asked for a probe by the council’s policy and resources select committee on Thursday July 22.

The questions Cllr Thornber has still not answered include: Blob) Was the decision to award £87,000 in special recognition payments over the last two years made on his own?

Blob) Was it recorded and reported to the employment committee or cabinet?

Blob) Who knew about the decision? Was it open to scrutiny?

Blob) What officer advice did he have on how the level of bonuses were decided?

Cllr Thornber has refused to directly answer questions from the Hampshire Chronicle. In a statement, he said as leader he had authority under the constitution of the council to decide pay policy, such as discretionary bonuses or “exceptional performance” awards as Hampshire calls them.

He said he is responsible for appraising the performance of chief executive, Andrew Smith, whom he gave a £15,000 bonus on top of his £204,723 salary in 2008-9.

The council boss consulted Mr Smith on the individual performances of chief officers.

Of these, two got an extra £12,500 and four others were handed £10,000 each on top of their six-figure salaries.

In the same year as £80,000 of taxpayers’ money was handed out in these payments, Cllr Thornber denied publicly that the council paid bonuses.

The cash was handed out as the country plunged into a financial crisis and 1,750 mainly male workers at the county council had their pay cut as part of a new salary structure.

The details only emerged after the council was forced to reveal the pay and perks of top earners under new transparency regulations brought in by Southampton Itchen MP John Denham when he was communities secretary in the last Labour government.

Cllr House said: “Clearly as leader, Cllr Thornber has significant powers but he has definite responsibilities too.

“One basic responsibility like senior staff pay – and this has to be in everyone’s best interests – is to go through the formal processes which exist like policy and resources or cabinet or the employment in Hampshire County Council committee.

“To discover he has taken the decision on his own, without consulting anyone other than the chief executive, beggars belief.

“He needs to make a statement to the full council about what has happened and how decisions will be made in a more transparent and open way in future.

“In the meantime, Hampshire taxpayers through the media and councillors have asked proper questions and they need to be answered. If he won’t or can’t answer these questions, he should consider his position.”

Councillors and paid officers are meant to abide by three fundamental principles of public life enshrined in the county council’s constitution - openness, integrity and accountability.

Former Lib-Dem leader Adrian Collett was a member of the all-party Employment in Hampshire County Council Committee in 2008-9 when £80,000 was handed out.

He said: “Senior officer salaries, including chief officers, are decided by the Employment in Hampshire County Council Committee (EHCCC).

“I don’t recall ever seeing a paper on payment of these bonuses or honoraria or whatever else Ken might decide to call them, so unless a paper was tabled without notice at a meeting that I missed I don’t believe EHCCC agreed these.”

Cllr Thornber issued a statement, saying the special payments to directors were in recognition of work to deliver savings of £57m in the past three years and the county council’s top rating.

It went on: “The constitution of the council, the national conditions for chief executives and chief officers and the council’s established salary policy all allow such payments to be made.

“All such payments are audited and the full extent of the payments published annually in the statement of accounts.

“It is now for the chairman of the policy and resources select committee to decide whether they wish to scrutinise any of these matters. If they decide to do so, I will be happy to co-operate with their review.”