When Katherine Kerswell was appointed as KCC’s new group managing director, she spoke of her delight at joining an authority in “such an exciting role.”
The leader of the council, Paul Carter, said how “enormously impressed” the appointment panel was by “her breadth of vision and energy and her absolute commitment to placing Kent citizens at the heart of the services we deliver.”
She certainly came with a reputation for doing things a little differently – she had become something of a You Tube viral sensation in her previous role at Northamptonshire county council after encouraging staff to “taste the strawberry”.
Apparently, it was an attempt to encapsulate the ‘flavour’ of the council’s services.
Barely one year on from this optimistic beginning, rumours are rife that the Managing Director - described as the biggest job in local government by Cllr Carter - is poised to depart.
The welter of speculation around County Hall has not been helped by KCC’s reluctance to say terribly much other than issue a bewildering and cryptic statement that says Mrs Kerswell “is and remains” the managing director. Which is factually accurate but doesn't really say an awful lot.
Intriguingly, this was also circulated to members of the Conservative group with the note: “The current line is as follows…” – rather implying that there are likely to be new lines coming.
The council won’t, incidentally, even comment on whether she is at her desk.
The circumstances of her reported departure remain a little unclear. If she is to leave, why is she going?
And, of course, if it transpires that she is, what pay off will she get? Some insiders have suggested a figure of close to £1m.
(Given the authority’s new-found enthusiasm for transparency, it will be interesting to see whether we will be told how much or a gagging clause is inserted preventing anyone speaking about it?)
Whatever account KCC chooses to give publicly, there appears to have been some kind of falling out between her and the political leadership.
It is certainly the case that Conservative councillors felt the direction KCC was taking was being led more by officers than by them. This was partly the reason why there was a leadership challenge. I’ve been told that there was a pledge by Cllr Carter to tackle this when he addressed the group in when he was challenged for the job.
There was also political disquiet over aspects of a far-reaching restructuring of the authority, which was supposed to slim down the number of top officers but made only marginal changes at the top.
The shake-up led to the departure of a string of senior directors with years of experience which cost the authority £350,000 in redundancy payments.
Temporary gaps were filled with a series of costly interims and consultants.
Known as the “Change To Keep Succeeding” programme, it was backed by the Conservative administration despite unease that it was being done at the same time as KCC was dealing with huge budget cuts and an expected 1,500 job losses.
It is not uncommon for council bosses to leave their jobs before the end of their contract. It happens frequently – and commonly, it is a personality clash that lies behind it.
What is worrying about this, however, is that it has happened barely a year after Mrs Kerswell took over the reins of what is the largest county in the country.
We do not know what the plans are for a replacement – or, indeed if there will be one – but as things stand, official information is in short supply and in an information vacuum, you end up with rumours and speculation.
On the other hand, if it is to do without a chief executive as is widely reported, perhaps that may not be such an issue.