Councillors left ‘gobsmacked’ and ‘disturbed; after chief finance officer at combined authority dismissed for ‘misleading’ statements

James Palmer

James Palmer - Credit: Archant

Councillors have been left “gobsmacked” and “disturbed” after the authority’s chief financial officer was dismissed, making him the fourth to leave in 18 months.

On Friday, Karl Fenlon, the chief financial officer at the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority was officially “dismissed” from the organisation, making him the fourth chief financial officer to leave the authority since it was set up in 2017.

James Palmer, mayor of the combined authority, said Mr Fenlon had been dismissed after making “misleading” statements about the funding of major projects at the authority’s overview and scrutiny committee on Monday. Mr Fenlon had cast doubt over whether major projects could be achieved within the authority’s budget.

Mr Palmer said he had to “have faith” in his officers, and said this had not been the case with Mr Fenlon.

But members of the authority’s audit and accounts committee paid tribute to Mr Fenlon, saying they had found him to be a “professional” and “impressive officer” who was helping to get the authority’s spending on track.

Cllr Nichola Harrison branded the situation “shambolic” and asked whether there was to be a pay-out for Mr Fenlon following his departure. Mr Palmer said he could not confirm whether any financial settlement had been awarded.

Lewis Herbert, Cambridge City Council leader and board member, called for an independent review into the governance of the authority.

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Cllr Herbert said: “For the record, other board members again kept in the dark. And while we were surprised at our s151 officer’s public candour last Monday, several of us do not approve the sacking of a finance officer of the highest skill and integrity. We need an independent review.”

Cllr Richard Robertson said: “We are in the position where a chief financial officer is no longer with us. He had made some very critical comments and now he has been sacked and that is a very serious thing for us to accept. From an audit point of view, we have had an impressive and effective, professional officer, and he has been sacked. You can’t just sack a 151 officer like that. I am very concerned about that.”

Cllr Antony Mason said he was “gobsmacked” and “disturbed” when he heard the news of Mr Fenlon’s dismissal.

On Monday, Mr Palmer said he could “only apologise” for “underestimating” the cost of running the combined authority having said in campaign literature it could be done for £850,000 a year. After taking on extra responsibilities and staff from the LEP (local enterprise partnership), the running costs of the authority now stand at about £7.6million a year.

Mr Palmer said his focus was now on recruiting a permanent chief financial officer. He said he didn’t like relying on interim post-holders, and said the next step would be to begin recruiting to fill the position permanently.

Later a joint a statement was issued by the leaders of both Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council.

It said: “As a result of the mayor’s decision to prematurely terminate the contract of the Authority’s Chief Finance Officer and s151* officer without any prior consultation with either of them, we are restating our demand for a full and independent review and audit of the Combined Authority’s finances.”

Councillor Bridget Smith, Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, said

“We called for this review in September when spending appeared to be running out of control and financial commitments over ambitious and it was denied. It is now even more apparent that this needs to happen urgently.

“Local authority chief finance and Section 151 officers have an independence and legal duty which is protected in law to make independent financial comment in the public interest.

“We fully understand why our finance and s151 officer declined to support a statement from the mayor retracting remarks they made at a formal Combined Authority Scrutiny Committee last Monday.

Councillor Lewis Herbert, leader of Cambridge City Council, said: “Together we believe an independent review and audit is the only way for us and for residents and local councillors across the Combined Authority to get full detail and restored faith in the Combined Authority’s finances and how major public funds are being used.

“There has been far too much uncontrolled spending this year, particularly before our latest s151 officer took a much firmer grip on financial management. “There needs to be a transparent and clear audit trail on how future Combined Authority plans will be funded, and how excess operational costs and consultancy budgets will be brought under control, so that spending focuses back on the infrastructure and improvements that our whole area so badly needs.”