Larne Borough Council’s ‘blank cheque’ for staff payments ‘highly irregular’

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One of the last acts of Larne Borough Council was to issue a “blank cheque” to pay off some staff who did not take up time in lieu entitlement.

The move has been blasted by outgoing Alliance representative John Mathews as “unprofessional”, and was against the wishes of Anne Donaghy, chief executive of Mid and East Antrim Council.

Mrs Donaghy warned that the Local Government Auditor would “have a significant interest” in what she termed “a highly irregular decision”.

The Larne Times understands that the retrospective pay was claimed by a small number of officers for hours worked in excess of their contracts – time for which they had received no payment and had not taken time off in lieu. The claim period was limited to the past 15 months, but according to Cllr Mathews, members did not have information on how much money was involved.

The controversial proposal was made behind closed doors during the final meeting of the council’s development committee. Minutes indicate that chief executive Geraldine McGahey informed councillors that she had tried to secure legal information on Council’s vires to make such payments, but “no guidance was available as the law was silent in that regard”.

The official record added: “Legal opinion was that Council was not required to reimburse officers for TOIL accrued. However, it was a matter for council’s consideration and discretion.”

The minutes state that at the outset of the debate, Mrs Gahey advised there was “a potential conflict of interest by herself”, but added she did not have any other officer to take the matter forward as staffing levels were “seriously depleted through secondment....retirement or sickness”. The record shows that director of development Linda McCullough had left the chamber.

The chief executive also told members that the lieu time was all documented. The recommendation to authorise payments was agreed by the committee, but when Mrs Donaghy learned of it, she sent an email to Mrs McGahey and all elected members in Larne, asking that the matter be deferred to MEA.

The Times has seen the email, which reads: “I would like to make you aware that I would have severe reservations about Council approving such a policy.

“As all employees of Larne Borough Council are transferring to the employment of Mid and East Antrim, I do not believe there is the basis for making a decision to make any payments and thus I would ask that the Council defer this issue to the first meeting of Mid and East Antrim.”

Despite Mrs Donaghy’s concerns, the decision was ratified at the council’s final monthly meeting, again in confidential session. The Times was excluded from the council chamber during this portion of the meeting, but we are reliably informed that members were split on the issue, with five voting against the recommendation and one abstention. All other members present at the meeting voted in favour.

One of those who rejected the move was Alliance’s John Mathews, who – when contacted by the Times – said it was “unprofessional”.

“It was not right that councillors were put in this position,” he added.

“I could not sign off on this proposal, as we had no figure in front of us for how much it would cost. The council does not have the vires to write a blank cheque.”

The Times asked Larne Council for a comment on Monday, but we were told that no one was available.