The mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough has hit back at “outrageous” claims of nepotism at the combined authority amid an ongoing row over recruitment following the departure of chief executive.

On Monday, James Palmer came before the authority's overview and scrutiny committee to answer councillors' concerns following the shock departure of the authority's chief executive Martin Whiteley during the summer.

Mr Palmer was asked about the circumstances surrounding Mr Whiteley's departure. He denied there had been a “falling out” between himself and Mr Whiteley, and said he had acted on legal advice when offering Mr Whiteley a “substantial severance payment” upon his departure.

Lucy Nethsingha, chairman of the overview and scrutiny committee, repeatedly asked Mr Palmer whether Mr Whiteley had resigned of his own accord, or whether he had been asked to resign. She said it was unusual for someone to resign and not serve the rest of their notice period.

“The clear answer is, Martin resigned,” said Mr Palmer. “I can reassure the committee he offered his resignation.”

Cllr Nethsingha said this did not answer the question.

Markus Gehring questioned this version of events, saying it was “not standard” to offer a severance payment to someone who had resigned. More often, he said, they were made to people who had been fired.

“It doesn't match up with my understanding of employment law,” said Cllr Gehring. “If you resign a position, you do not get a severance package. You get that if you are fired.”

Mr Palmer said the situation was “not unusual”, and said Mr Whiteley's lawyers and the combined authority's lawyers had agreed on a figure for the severance payment. He would not disclose the figure to the committee, but said it would be made public “when it is appropriate” to do so.

Answering a question from Cllr Chris Boden, Mr Palmer said the payout for Mr Whiteley had not been more than he had been contractually entitled to.

Mike Sargeant also questioned some of the combined authority's recent appointments, saying there had been a “disproportionate focus” on recruiting councillors from East Cambridgeshire (where Mr Palmer had been leader of the district council).

Cllr Sargeant said it appeared East Cambridgeshire was a wellspring of talent in the UK. Mr Palmer said there was a lot of talent in the area, but denied the authority was recruiting in an unfair way.

“The reality is, I believe the people who are in place have got the ability to work appropriately in their positions,” said Mr Palmer.

Mr Palmer said the most important thing was “delivering for the people of Cambridgeshire”.

Cllr Gehring said telling the scrutiny committee the number of recruits coming from East Cambridgeshire was “coincidence” was “extraordinarily naïve”.

Mr Palmer said any claims applicants from East Cambridgeshire were given any favour were “outrageous”, and showed a “lack of decorum” from Cllr Gehring.

“I am very surprised at some of the things you have said,” said Mr Palmer. “I think they are outrageous.”