Barnet Council director departs after errors led to ‘unravelling of decision-making’

Maryellen Salter.

Maryellen Salter. - Credit: Archant

One of Barnet Council’s most senior directors has stepped down after her team was blamed for a string of errors which led to the “unravelling of the decision-making structure”.

Barnet Council chief executive Andrew Travers.

Barnet Council chief executive Andrew Travers. - Credit: Archant

Maryellen Salter left her role as the council’s assurance director last week after an investigation found her governance team was responsible for producing erroneous reports for the annual council meeting on June 2.

Barnet Council chief executive Andrew Travers was forced to postpone several meetings after it was discovered the two reports - underpinning the council’s new committee system of governance - were incorrect when voted on by councillors and left the new committee system “flawed”.

The reports - outlining the political proportionality of the new committees and the new members’ allowance - were repeated from previous reports and did not address current legal issues.

The political proportionality report also failed to reflect the Conservative majority on the council following May’s elections and allocated too few Conservative councillors to some committees.

In January, Barnet Council approved plans to scrap its cabinet and replace it with a cross-party committee system after May’s election.

On Friday, Mr Travers e-mailed all councillors informing them of Ms Salter’s departure following the publication of a report compiled by independent solicitor Claer Lloyd-Jones, who was enlisted to investigate the matter.

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He wrote: “Maryellen Salter yesterday left the employment of the council by mutual agreement. The remuneration committee will consider the recruitment process for the now vacant assurance director role in due course.”

In her report, Ms Lloyd-Jones said the “unravelling of the decision-making structure” due to the “incorrect or misleading” reports was the joint responsibility of Ms Salter’s team and the council’s shared legal service with Harrow Council.

In 2012, Barnet Council outsourced its legal service to the neighbouring Harrow authority on a five-year contract.

Ms Lloyd-Jones said there was now “no one who understands local government law” working at Barnet Council after all its in-house lawyers transferred to the Harrow-based service and its legally-qualified monitoring officer left in May 2013.

Ms Salter took on the vacant role of monitoring officer following her appointment as assurance director in April 2013 - heading a newly-formed Assurance Group set up as part of a council restructure - which offered an annual salary of £103,846, as of March 2013.

In her report, Ms Lloyd-Jones points out that Ms Salter is an accountant and notes that “most local authorities” appoint “their most senior lawyer” to the role of monitoring officer.

She describes a council monitoring officer as the “guardian of the constitution” and “responsible for advising the council on the legality of its decisions”.

Ms Lloyd-Jones criticises the Harrow legal service for failing in its duties to offer legal assistance to Barnet Council officers, pointing out that “no comments or advice” were given on drafts of the erroneous reports sent to them by Barnet’s governance team.

Barnet Council leader Cllr Richard Cornelius said Ms Lloyd-Jones’ report was “fair enough” and it was now “a question of how we move forward”.

Barnet Labour leader Cllr Alison Moore said: “I think its become very clear that the monitoring officer needs to be legally qualified and I think it was a mistake of the council to move to a place where they did not have one.”

Westminster Council legal chief Peter Large has been seconded to Barnet Council as interim monitoring officer while a permanent replacement is sought.