PRESS and public were excluded from a meeting to discuss a chief executive’s salary last night – despite calls for councillors to openly consider the matter (Thursday, December 11).
The Gazette and Observer had urged Arun District Council’s chief executive remuneration committee to discuss the annual salary review of its highest-paid officer in public.
They were supported by veteran Liberal Democrat Dr James Walsh but the vote was lost by a margin of two to one.
The newspapers had asked to make formal representations as early as Monday but were told on Thursday that public speaking was not part of the meeting.
Dr Walsh said: “The guidance from the Information Commissioner is very clear, that disclosure should be encouraged if the information would promote accountability and transparency in decision making and to quote from the Information Commissioner’s Office guidance, ‘the more senior a person is the less likely it will be that to disclose information about him or her acting in an official capacity would be unfair’, and there is no post more senior than the chief executive.”
Members were asked to consider passing a resolution to exclude press and public because the information related to ‘an individual’.
The Gazette and Observer believed this was a misguided application of the Local Government Act, arguing the public interest outweighed the exemption. It also pointed to Arun’s own pay policy statement, which notes it is ‘good governance’ for such decisions to be made in an ‘open and accountable way’.
Chairman Paul Wotherspoon, a Conservative cabinet member, read a long statement at the meeting, published in part yesterday.
He explained the committee’s decision would go to full council, to be discussed in public unless councillors decided to speak in private.
He said: “The final resolution of council will include the salary decided and be published following the meeting of January 13, 2016, promoting accountability and transparency in an open and accountable manner.
“The arrangements for this meeting have followed the same practices since it was established in 2011 and in accordance with the agreed protocol adopted by councils in dealing with remuneration matters.”
Mr Wotherspoon added that the committee was not making decisions but ‘recommending’, leading Dr Walsh to suggest he was ‘splitting hairs’.
The recommendation to exclude press and public was proposed by cabinet member Terry Chapman, seconded by backbencher Mike Clayden.
Dr Walsh voted against, while Mr Wotherspoon did not vote.
The two to one vote was described by the chairman as an ‘overwhelming majority’.
Littlehampton town councillor Derrick Chester, who was in the public gallery, said: “We often hear from Arun that this is the way we have always done things, however the tide is turning and people are rightly expecting more transparency.”
Taxpayers’ Alliance chief executive Jonathan Isaby said before the meeting that the council should ‘see sense’ and that it was important ‘that there is transparency over how taxpayers’ money is spent’.