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.”
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…..
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.