A councillor has claimed top City Hall officers answerable to Bristol’s mayor are “fearful of pressure from their boss”, which he says has led to a breakdown of trust with other elected members.
Green councillor Clive Stevens says senior city council directors are “unduly influenced” because they report directly to Marvin Rees. He told a full council meeting of Bristol City Council that it meant he could not always trust what officers said. He was speaking during a debate on who should oversee the role of chief executive, which has been restored three years after it was scrapped.
The Lib Dems and Tories tabled an amendment to wrench power from the mayor over the authority’s top officer by setting up a cross-party performance management panel. Labour councillors, who hold the majority, voted it down, branding it “politically motivated”, “inappropriate” and “resurrecting an old policy from the dead”. Members unanimously approved the appointment of current head of paid service Mike Jackson into the position.
Cllr Stevens told the remote meeting on Zoom on Thursday, 21 May that the amendment was “simply reenacting what was agreed in March 2017” when full council, including Labour, agreed to create the panel.
“It is about full council rightly re-exerting its authority over the constitution,” he said, referring to the set of rules by which the local authority operates. “Full council is in charge of the constitution, not the mayor. The amendment will create a structure giving Mike Jackson the opportunity to rebuild mutual trust between some officers and some councillors.
“Over the last few years I have sat in meetings where I wondered ‘can I trust what is being said?’. Regretfully I’ve come to the conclusion ‘no I can’t’, the person might have been unduly influenced or fearful even of pressures from their boss, or boss’s boss, because they are performance appraised and reporting into the mayor.”
He said an audit committee meeting which he chaired on 16 March discussed the governance of council-owned Bristol Energy but members were not told a new managing director of the firm had been appointed that same day.
Cllr Stevens said: “You’d think the most important fact about governance would have been passed on. But no, we blindly talked on and on about getting another report when the actual solution had already been enacted.
“Nobody told us. Maybe the officers didn’t know either. And if they didn’t know, then I fear loss of trust is spreading. We need to work together to rebuild that mutual trust.”
Conservative Cllr Peter Abraham said: “The appointment of chief executive must be transparent. It must be clear who that chief executive serves.
“Our history recently has not been very good and we need to get this one right. Officers are accountable to the council, not an individual party. The elected mayor would be placed in a very difficult position if wheels come off wagons, and we’ve seen them come off recently.”
He said Mr Jackson should not start his new role “with his hands tied behind his back”.
Lib Dem group leader, Cllr Gary Hopkins said full council unanimously agreed creating a cross-party panel in March 2017 – before the chief executive role was axed – amid officers’ warnings there was a “danger of just one party controlling” the officer.
‘Politically motivated’ and ‘inappropriate’
But Labour’s human resources committee chairman, Cllr Jon Wellington said that it was related to the “specific postholder at that particular time” who was appointed on a fixed-term basis with arrangements for performance related pay.
He said: “The new chief executive will be appointed on a permanent basis and there is no provision for performance-related pay. These are unusual times and we need clear leadership of senior officers and also constructive partnership with the political leadership of the council.
“This kind of politically motivated amendment is inappropriate when we face the biggest crisis in most of our lifetimes and the council faces an unprecedented set of challenges. This amendment was raised after the selection committee when terms and conditions and line of accountability had already been agreed with the candidate and his employer.
“Making amendments to agreed selection committee recommendations a few days before full council and firing off press releases to try to change an officer’s terms of employment just makes us, as a set of councillors, look unprofessional.
“If we are going to do it, we will do it properly with cross-party discussions with the appropriate committees. “Resurrecting this old policy from the dead, which was tailored to a specific postholder with very different employment terms to what we’ve got now, is not the right way to go about it.”