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Woking Council Splits Over Candidate for Chief Executive Post

Published on: 9 Jan, 2021
Updated on: 12 Jan, 2021

By Julie Armstrong

local democracy reporter

Woking Borough Council failed to make Julie Fisher their new chief executive as expected on Thursday (January 7), after non-Conservative councillors unanimously refused to ratify the appointment before meeting and questioning her.

There is no overall control by any single party at Woking. Of the 30 council seats the Conservatives have 14, the Lib Dems 10, Labour and Independents 3 each.

Cllr Ayesha Azad

Council leader Ayesha Azad (Con, Heathlands) chastised members for “playing political games”, calling their behaviour “appalling”.

Ms Fisher has survived a long recruitment process and the council was expected to vote through a recommendation that she replace Ray Morgan, who leaves before April after 15 years.

But Lib Dem group leader Ann-Marie Barker (Goldsworth Park) expressed concerns.

Cllr David Bittleston (Con, Mount Hermon) told the meeting a letter from the other group leaders to Cllr Azad “which says the process has been tampered with” was “about the most antagonistic letter I’ve ever seen”.

He added: “To delay [the appointment] will send such an appalling message, both to the candidate but also to any possible future candidate who might think about joining this complete shambles.”

Cllr Barker told members: “It’s important the appointment of a chief executive is a council decision and it’s only fair to the incoming chief executive there is broad agreement in their appointment from across the council.

“There have been some concerns about how the process was conducted. It’s no secret that we had thought at one stage there may be more than one candidate coming forward to this council meeting and that didn’t happen.

“So because of the way the process was done, there are some councillors who feel they’d perhaps like to know a little bit more about the candidate.”

Unusually, Mayor Beryl Hunwicks used her right to vote, but the split was still 16-14 in favour of deferral.

The vote was split down party lines, with all Conservatives against the delay and everyone else in favour.

One councillor said they would not be surprised if Ms Fisher, the remaining finalist when another withdrew, now walked away from the role.

Cllr Kevin Davis (Con, Heathlands) said to make the candidate wait so long for a decision was “extremely unfair”.

He added: “Frankly if I was in that position, I’d probably turn round and go, ‘No, actually get on with it, go and find someone else, do it yourselves’, and walk away from it.”

Ms Fisher already works for WBC as director of community services. She spent 11 years as Surrey County Council’s deputy chief executive in charge of children, schools and families as well as business support services.

This was followed by an eight-month term as interim chief executive for the county council in 2017-18.

The £144,000 chief executive post attracted 21 applicants and 10 were chosen to be interviewed by Tile Hill recruitment company.

Six who were shortlisted, including current chief executives from elsewhere, had to respond to a hypothetical request for a media interview about “Woking Borough Council’s large and ongoing investment in commercial properties, all financed by the Public Works Loan Board”.

This was followed by discussions with the leader and two Conservative and two Lib Dem councillors. They also had to give a presentation on how they would prioritise the growth agenda in Woking, including a commitment to tackling the climate emergency.

Two people were considered well-suited for the post but one, who works in Scotland, pulled out on December 29.

Cllr Ian Johnson (Lib Dem, Mount Hermon), said: “We were expecting the vast bulk of councillors would get to meet her in tonight’s meeting along with the other candidate.

“So those of us who haven’t been involved in the process have not had the opportunity to talk to her, ask questions and so on.

“As the leader rightly pointed out earlier, it’s a once in a generational appointment so I think it’s a really good idea that all of us get the opportunity to meet her.

“Frankly, I wasn’t expecting only one candidate at the end. It came as rather a surprise and a disappointment.”

Cllr Colin Kemp (Con, Horsell), who worked with Ms Fisher for many years at Surrey County Council, said: “It is not unusual for candidates to pull out through the process. We need leadership as soon as possible.”

Council leader Azad said the process had been “sound” and she had hoped the appointment would be a “unifying process”.

“That is why, on the appointment panel there was a tie and I, as chairman of that panel, chose not to use my vote, and put it to full council,” she said.

“I could have taken my choice on that panel, but I thought to be collaborative, to give all councillors the choice of two capable candidates.

“The choice of one candidate to withdraw was a choice they made, but we agreed on the panel that if that was to happen, then the other candidate would go forward and would be agreed.

“What deferral actually does, it undermines the process that was agreed and it undermines the candidate before members this evening. It’s not fair and it’s not right.

“They have run through the gauntlet, the rigorous process of interview, of testing, of presentations. They deserve a decision. And I’m asking members to do their duty.”

She urged them to vote the candidate in, saying: “This is not about a policy, this is not about a political issue, this is about a person.”

All councillors will now meet with Ms Fisher for an hour in the next week and there will be a special council meeting on Tuesday, January 19.

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