South Somerset secrets exposed

This Thursday,16 December, all members of South Somerset District Council (SSDC) will meet. An item of huge public importance has been scheduled but the press and public are due to be excluded. So that members of the public and rank-and-file councillors fully understand what is going on, we are publishing a special online report. There will be a much fuller story, going into much more of the hidden detail, in the 15 January Leveller®.

We understand that the confidential agenda item (22. Confidential Staffing Matter – verbal report from the Chief Executive) is about Clare Pestell, the council’s former Director, Commercial & Income Generation. She was appointed SSDC’s new interim chief executive (CEO) back in the summer, only to resign before taking up office for reasons which have never been publicly stated. SSDC has undertaken a massive cover-up to prevent the facts from getting into the public domain – until now.

The Chief Executive Who Never Was.

Ms Pestell is no longer employed by the council. However, if things had turned out differently, she would now be its interim Chief Executive, drawing a salary of £118,767.

On 5 May this year the Full Council met. On the agenda (item 10, seeing as you ask) was the appointment of an Interim Chief Executive-designate (CEO). There was only one candidate, Clare Pestell. Councillors, given no reason not to appoint her, duly ratified her appointment.

Yet, less than a month later, on 4 June, outgoing CEO Alex Parmley announced Ms Pestell would not be taking up her appointment after all. Council staff were told this was for “personal reasons.”

Cover up

The real reasons for the decision were covered up. The press and public will be excluded from any discussion about Ms Pestell on Thursday and how she nearly came to be appointed interim CEO.

We have decided to publish now because each time we have asked SSDC straight questions, it has responded with answers that we consider to be somewhere between evasive and disingenuous.

If SSDC wishes to comment on this article it is, of course, welcome to do so. We will publish any response.

What went wrong?

The timeline that led to Ms Pestell’s appointment on 5 May is crucial to the story. Please bear with us, as there will be many dates!

On 19 April, Mr Parmley announced his resignation from SSDC. He would be leaving later in the summer for a new life in New Zealand. Given the future of the council was in doubt because of the unitary debate, SSDC decided, quite reasonably, to appoint an interim CEO.

That process started, according to the minutes of the 5 May Council meeting, on 20 April.

On 22 April, Council leader Val Keitch and Mr Parmley received a letter from a whistleblower. The letter made a number of serious accusations against Ms Pestell, concerning the alleged abuse of council property and the alleged unauthorised use of council employees at her own business, a vineyard in north Dorset.

We should state clearly that Ms Pestell did refute and continues to refute all the allegations against her.

However, and quite properly, the leader and chief executive commissioned a fact-finding report by local government auditors SWAP.

The date that happened is not clear but, whether it was commissioned before or after 5 May, Ms Keitch and Mr Parmley clearly took the allegations against Pestell very seriously.

What happened next…

From 28 April to 4 May a recruitment process was undertaken in which there was only one candidate. That candidate was Ms Pestell.

She was then recommended for appointment at the full Council meeting on 5 May. Despite the fact both the leader and then-chief executive between them knew the following:

  • Serious accusations had been made against Ms Pestell. Even though a fact-finding exercise was to be commissioned, neither the leader nor the CEO seems to have decided it was necessary to wait for its results. These, bear in mind, would either confirm serious accusations against Ms Pestell or put her in the clear, allowing her appointment to be ratified.
  • Equally importantly, Mr Parmley had stated that, in his view, Ms Pestell was already struggling to balance her existing senior job at the Council with running her personal business, Melbury Vale Vineyard in Dorset. In August 2019, Mr Parmley had specifically authorised her to work four days a week for the Council, so she could balance working for the council with working on the winery and vineyard. In October 2019 he noted that, even the four-day arrangement did not seem to be working out. Yet, in May 2021 he was proposing she should lead the entire Council…..

Deceived?

Councillors were asked to ratify the appointment of Clare Pestell even though Mr Parmley and Ms Keitch had deliberately kept from them significant information – information which would have a direct bearing on the new chief executive’s suitability for the position.

With only one candidate and the most significant information withheld, it was hardly surprising that Councillors ratified her appointment.

Mr Parmley and Ms Keitch could – and, arguably, should – have waited. Once the fact-finding report was in their hands, they would have been in a position to make an informed decision. Mr Parmley did not leave the council until July. The report was presented on 24 June and, after reading it, the leader and CEO appointed an Investigator to further investigate Ms Pestell.

We now know that on 4 June Ms Pestell stood down from the top job without even starting it. And in November she left the council.

So, why the rush to get her appointed on 5 May?

How could the leader and CEO put a proposition to the full Council while deliberately withholding relevant – and serious – information?

Did other members of the Cabinet also know? Surely they must now account for what they did and what they knew about the matter before it went to the full Council.

They might like to reflect, as they meet on Thursday, whether this is an issue which requires resignations.

9 comments

  • I congratulate Mr Lee for bringing the facts to the public’s attention. I was not even aware that Clare Pestell was working 4 days because she was running her own business, not something I would have thought would be advisable, even if permitted, in respect of any Chief Executive on a 6-figure salary.

    These shenanigans also call into question the role of the Leader and Chief Exec in making the appointment before the SWAP’s report was available. Has anyone else seen the report or the follow up by the appointed Investigator? How much has all this cost?

  • This is what happens when an elected Council Leader is “captured” by an autocratic Chief Executive like Alex Parmley.

    We elect Councillors to be in charge. Leaders that trail in the wake of a Chief Executive is usually a sign that the Leader lacks the character, aptitude and skills to lead in their own right.

    This Leadership “capture” also affected the County Council Lib Dem administration back in 2005 and led to the disastrous Southwest One outsource with IBM in 2009 which lost over £70m rather than saving £180m.

    This controversial outsource was led by hubristic Chief Executive Alan Jones with Lib Dem Leaders Cathy Bakewell and then Jill Shortland, both trailing in his disastrous wake. Extravagant claims about IT-led “transformation” were made.

    Poorly led Council administrations of any party usually resort to expensive PR teams, spin and absurd puffed up Case Studies that should start “Once upon a time…..” together with excessive secrecy and an aversion to openness and transparency.

    That is why we need to appreciate investigative journalism as we see here from The Leveller. PS Don’t expect any public interest advertising business from South Somerset District Council.

    The claims of success in the Case Studies for Ignite “transformation” were so grossly inaccurate (both for the Conservative led Taunton Deane Borough Council and the Lib Dem led South Somerset District Council) that the Advertising Standards Authority had them taken down from the web.

    Ironically, the so called costly “transformation” with Ignite at the Lib Dem led South Somerset District Council (and In Taunton Deane Borough Council – Conservative led) had many of the failings of Southwest One, showing that published Lessons Learned rarely are.

    Presumably, Alex Parmley got his new job in New Zealand by making hubristic claims in his CV about the success of his leadership and the “transformation” he led?

    Challenge to The Leveller: Make contact with the local paper in New Zealand to ensure that their taxpayers hear the truth about Alex Parmley’s true record in South Somerset.

    These charismatic Chief Executives always move on without taking responsibility for their failures and usually with their pockets jangling if redundancy and early retirement beckon. Taxpayers and council services take the financial hit for their failings.

    In the County Council, there are, in my view, leadership issues around tolerating poor performance and sub par management cultures together with enormous amounts being spent on PR. All bad signs.

    Come the May 2022 elections for our not-so-new unitary council (the name simply removes the one word “County” from Somerset County Council) then I ask voters to pay close attention to each potential Leader and ask yourself:

    1. Can they lead in their own right?

    2) Can they recruit a competent Chief Executive who will set expectations of high professional standards and confront poor performance?

    3) Will they be accountable, open and transparent?

  • Alex Parmley is the current Chief Executive of Waitaki District Council based in Otago, in the South Island, New Zealand and took up that appointment in July 2021.

  • Ms Pestell was appointed to a “5 days a week” position in SSDC and this was then changed to 4 days a week as agreed by the Chief Executive. Was her salary downgraded by 20% as a consequence? If not, why not? (Remember that she was struggling to work a 5 day week for SSDC so would not have been able to work for them outside her 4 days a week in the office).
    Moving on to the enquiries generated by the Whistle-blower’s letter – will the report comment on how open and co-operative Ms Pestell had been?

  • Well done the editor……to quote Private Eye a few weeks ago..” what are they all smoking”.

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  • Great story Andrew. Congratulations. Proper coup for dogged journalism. Some extraordinarily gifted, determined and kind people work at SSDC. They have been bitterly underserved by the quality of their leadership in recent years.
    Your fine story begs the next obvious question. Even though she was never in post, did the fact that she was the heir presumptive allow the previous Chief Exec to to push through any final decisions that another heir presumptive might have blocked? Decisions to do with his severance perhaps or the non-enforcement of terms of his contract? I am of course guessing, and in no position to allege, but what else would explain the unholy rush to ratify such a patently unsuitable candidate.
    Questions should also be asked of the elected representatives. As one of your correspondents points out above – aren’t they supposed to be running things? Shower of sheep would be a generous description by the sound of things.
    I do wonder at what further horrors there won’t be time to brush under the Unitary carpet. Good stories rumble on and I know you, of all people, won’t be letting this go.

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