THESE were the two questions on most people’s lips at Thurrock Council this week after it was announced that chief executive Angie Ridgwell was leaving the authority after just two years in the job.

She was appointed in the wake of the departure of former top boss David White who walked into a top job with another authority after pocketing more than £400,000 in his pay-off.

An internal email briefed staff on Monday, but until the Gazette contacted the Council no official statement was made.

Then the council issued a comment from the outgoing exec which said: “After two really exciting and challenging years, I have concluded that I have achieved as much as I can.

“After much evaluation of my ambitions and priorities for the role, I have decided now is the right time to pursue new challenges.

“This will allow me to take my career in a different direction so I can explore other prospects in the wider public sector that will provide opportunities for me to play to my strengths and build on the experience that I have gained in Thurrock.”

However, the statement cut little ice with opponents of the Conservative ruling group, with Labour leader John Kent damning the Tories and accusing them of secretly plotting the departure of a number of senior officers.

Councillor Kent said: “Once again Tory councillors are ‘moving on’ a chief executive; once again it’s Council tax payers who’ll have to foot the bill.

“Rumours have been circulating that the chief executive was about to ‘move on’ after a major falling out with the Council leader. We now know these rumours were true. “When the Tories ‘moved on’ the last chief executive it cost us £400,000. We need to know how much council taxpayers will have to pay this time around and what services the Tories plan to cut to pay for it. “Just so there can be no misunderstanding Labour Councillors have nothing at all to do with this.

“Shamefully, the first my colleagues learnt about this was from the Thurrock Gazette and not Thurrock Council. “It seems as though the Chief Executive’s departure has been hatched in great secrecy by a cabal of Tory councillors and executed by the Leader of the Council. There are rumours that Tory councillors want to get rid of other senior Council officers.

“There are so many questions to answer and I’ve written to the Leader today asking for answers to a few of them:-

  • Why this departure was so urgent that the set down procedure and consultations had to be sidestepped?
  • What were the reasons for such a sudden departure?
  • How much will this cost the council tax payers of Thurrock?
  • Who is next?”

Council leader councillor Terry Hipsey has been tight-lipped about Angie Ridgwell’s departure, saying he is unable to comment on legal matters at this stage. However, he pledged that in due course all actions taken by the Council will be vindicated.

He will hope though, that his words about Angie Ridgwell do not come back to haunt him as he was quoted in the Council’s official statement, saying: “Angie has worked with great dedication, commitment and integrity during her time with Thurrock Council.

“She has shown strong leadership and played a key role in our local community.

“I have seen at first hand how hard she has worked not only in the Council’s interest but also in promoting partnerships within Thurrock, South Essex and across the region.” Outside the two major groups, BNP councillor Emma Colgate says it is important the Council avoids a further blunder.

She said: “Angie was very supportive to myself when I was first elected and I am sure she will be greatly missed by her colleagues, I wish her well in the future.

“However, Thurrock has been identified as a poor performing two star authority so it is vital that her successor is carefully selected.”

by Thurrock Gazette editor NEIL SPEIGHT

RUMOURS that Angie Ridgwell was under pressure have abounded at Thurrock Council for some time.

A series of blunders by officers during recent months, most highlighted in the Gazette, have shown up major flaws in the Council’s senior management and it appears that the chief executive has carried the can.

Most recently the Council was forced to admit a failure in making sure Council homes were safe because no gas checks had been carried out; the Council’s accounts were delivered late and incomplete; councillors have repeatedly slammed officers for incomplete and late information that prevent them from making informed decisions; and the Council was forced into a humiliating climbdown under threat of costly legal action after clashing with Thurrock Thames Gateway Develop-ment Corporation over planning issues.

In addition the Council is currently under scrutiny by the Ombudsman over its handling of incidents at Orsett Cricket Club, full details of which have yet to see the light of day but it is expected the Council will be heavily criticised.

Yet despite this, it isn’t long since Tory leader Terry Hipsey, under ridicule from Labour councillors, praised Mrs Ridgwell and her team when presenting a report on the Council’s performance in the last financial year.

It seems, since then, things have changed.

When I asked the Council to balance what was said then, with this week’s actions, the response was curt and to the point.

“These comments referred to the council’s performance in the year to the end of March 2008,” I was told.

Despite the Council’s official statement, it seems there is disquiet in the ranks.

Should that then, result in another bumper payout for the chief exec? I have been assured that the Council has only done what it has to legally.

And the truth will eventually out, as confirmed by the Council’s spokesperson who refused to answer my direct question but added: “Any payments made will be included in the final accounts of the current financial year.”

So we will have to wait until next year to find out and no doubt Labour will be salivating over the prospect of extracting full embarrassment if the Tories have had to dip into the public purse to any great extent without cause.

The Council, officially, says Mrs Ridgwell has not been removed from her post.

I can only take it from that that she has chosen to go, though the text of her farewell message poses as may questions as answers.

Her departure – and that of other senior officers in recent months - has also sparked alarm bells at the Audit Commission and the government’s Office for Communities and Local Government. Both ‘watchdogs’ have confirmed they will be watching closely.

On behalf of all council taxpayers, let’s hope they are though if Labour’s worst fears prevail it will be a case of shutting the stable door after not one, but two, horses have bolted.

On the other hand, the Tories could come out of this smelling of roses.

Word reaches me that there is much more still to be told and they may yet end up wallowing in purification rather than putrefaction.

On Tuesday the Council offices were cleared because of the smell of gas.

Perhaps it was an omen at a time when many are saying something stinks in the corridors of power.

Roses – or bad eggs?

Sadly, as usually happens in these instances, the public will be the last to know. But to everyone concerned – we are watching, waiting and sniffing!

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