12:37pm Thursday 22nd July 2010
By Andrew Napier
HAMPSHIRE council boss Ken Thornber has defied calls to apologise over secret bonus payments to senior staff and insisted he had done nothing wrong.
But such payments were unlikely to be made in the future, he told a full meeting of the county council in Winchester last week.
Opposition calls for a full debate on the controversy were quashed by meeting chairman, Cllr Carol Leversha.
In a statement that lasted some 35 minutes, the veteran leader defended the paying of £87,000 between 2008-10 to senior officers, all of whom are already on six-figure salaries.
He said the payments were in recognition of the top managers’ achievement of having Hampshire ranked as the best county council in the country with the second lowest council tax.
The officers had made savings of £57 million and the payments were only a fifth of one per cent of the council wage bill of £400 million, he said.
Cllr Thornber repeated his assertion that the payments were ‘special recognition awards’, discretionary and not guaranteed, and not ‘bonuses’ which are contractual and ongoing.
But he acknowledged that the public mood had changed, and no payments had been made in 2009-10 or in future.
Cllr Thornber said at Liverpool City Council, only a third the size of Hampshire, the top seven officers have been receiving average bonuses of £21,000 each.
He revealed that, overall, the cost of the senior managers was now £122,000 less than in 2005-06.
The chief executive Andrew Smith, when appointed in 2007, was earning £10,000 less than his predecessor.
His statement sparked opposition leader Keith House to say, to cries of “shame” from Tory councillors: “It is clear the leader does not get this.”
Cllr House added: “The distinction between special recognition payment and bonus is too subtle for members of the public not familiar with local government to understand.
“Would the leader not agree this is not about payments, but about transparency, accountability and about honesty?
When nobody has the faintest idea what is happening, that is not a good system.”
Cllr Brian Dash said: “The leader has been doing defence by boredom for 40 minutes.”
The issue will next be discussed at the council policy and resources select committee today (Thursday).
Cllr Thornber said he would be happy to answer questions at that meeting.
He said he would accept if the council wanted to change the system to take responsibility for chief executive pay from the leader.
Meanwhile, Cllr Thornber did reveal Hampshire was unlikely to replace its public relation boss Keith Kerslake — who left last August — and an assistant director. Their ongoing non-replacement has already saved £220,000.
Christine Melsom, of the Isitfair council tax action group, said: “I think Cllr Thornber explained things quite clearly but these senior officers are paid enough without any extra.”
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