THE mystery of why a highly-paid council boss has been off work for over two months has deepened – with councillors closing ranks and refusing to discuss the matter.
Mrs Wheeler has been away from her £160,000-a-year post as chief executive at Somerset County Council since late November.
The official line from County Hall was initially that she was on “sick leave”, then last month a statement said she was “not in the office at this time”.
This week a spokesman for the authority said: “Sheila Wheeler continues to be away from the office.
“The responsibilities of the chief executive as head of paid service are temporarily being carried out by the deputy chief executive Pat Flaherty.
“This council has a strict policy of not commenting on employees and this continues to be the case.”
Council leader Cllr John Osman has failed to respond to phone call and e-mail requests for an interview with the County Gazette.
And our straw poll of local councillors shows that they have been gagged from discussing the position, while Mrs Wheeler has not spoken publicly of the reasons behind her absence.
Taunton Deane’s LibDem MP Jeremy Browne has again called on the county to come clean and explain what is going on.
He said: “Somerset council tax payers have a right to know what is happening with the chief executive.
“She is very highly paid with a bigger salary than the Prime Minister (who is on £142,500).
“This position remaining vacant runs the risk that key services in Somerset will not be properly delivered.
“The Conservatives running the county council should stop being so secretive and put the interests of Somerset residents first.”
Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Taxpayers foot a huge bill for Sheila Wheeler’s salary – it’s not fair on them or her for so many questions to remain about this sorry state of affairs.
“It’s vital the case is dealt with swiftly and fairly to ensure taxpayers’ money isn’t squandered paying a six-figure salary for someone not at their desk.”
*HERE’S WHAT SOME OF YOUR COUNTY COUNCILLORS SAID.
*Andrew Govier (Labour) Wellington: “I’ve been sworn to secrecy. All councillors have been told it must remain confidential. As far as I know, she’s still an employee of the county council and could return to work. I’m not party to any decision to terminate her employment or to suspend her. As far as I’m aware, she’s on full pay. She certainly was when she initially went on sick leave.”
*Mike Rigby (Indpendent) Lydeard: “Yes, I know (why Sheila Wheeler is away), but I can’t tell you. Councillors have been specifically told they aren’t allowed to tell anyone. I can’t say whether she’s expected to return to work because I don’t know. As far as I know, she’s still on full pay.”
*Simon Coles (LibDem) Taunton East: “I don’t know why she’s off. We haven’t been given a reason and I’m not aware of an official reason. I know what I think and what other people are saying, but that hasn’t been confirmed. I’ve been told not to talk about it by the council and my group leader. My group leader says we’ll be told more in the fullness of time. I’m unhappy we haven’t got clarification. I have no reason to disbelieve she is on full pay – I have no knowledge one way or the other.”
*Alan Wedderkopp (LibDem) Comeytrowe and Trull: “I have no idea why she’s off work. Councillors have been told it’s confidential. It’s frustrating – we ask questions and we’re just told it’s confidential, that’s all we get back from the leader of the council. I can’t see how anything to do with the council should be confidential from councillors – we should know, otherwise how can we represent our constituents?”
*Justine Baker (LibDem) Bishop’s Hull: “We know part of the reason, but not the full reason. But we’ve been told we’re not allowed to tell anyone for legal reasons to the extent we could be individually liable for legal action. We don’t know when to expect her back. As far as I’m aware she’s on full pay. Residents are angry that they’re not being told anything and are accusing the council of a cover up.”
*Derek Yeomans (Conservative) Curry Rivel and Langport: “You can’t ask me any questions about it. You wouldn’t get an answer because it’s confidential. We’ve all been told we mustn’t speak about it and that’s the end of it, I’m afraid.”