Keep your friends close and your enemies closer is a familiar maxim but as Mayor Dr Nik Johnson has discovered in the case of Wayne Fitzgerald it isn’t necessarily so. In June 2021 a conciliatory move by the newly elected Labour mayor to keep Cllr Fitzgerald, then Tory leader of Peterborough City Council, onside by appointing him as deputy mayor was a risk he felt worth taking.
“I look forward to working with the new mayor Dr Nik Johnson as I believe all involved with the Combined Authority have a big job ahead of us to improve the health and wellbeing outcomes for people,” Cllr Fitzgerald said.
It looked a promising start.
But as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said, when asked what the greatest challenge for a statesman was, he replied: ‘Events, dear boy, events’.
By 2022 Mayor Johnson was under pressure over comings and goings at the Combined Authority – not least over the sudden departure of chief executive Eileen Milner and Austen Adams, business board chair – and his critics were out for him.
An extraordinary meeting of the Combined Authority to discuss calls for Dr Nik’s resignation would, as a matter of course, be chaired by the deputy mayor – so Cllr Fitzgerald, as a signatory to the motion, was speedily removed, a decision he regarded as “divisive and disgraceful”.
But the wheels were by then well under way for investigations into aspects of the mayor’s conduct and behaviour and the gloves, so to speak, came off.
Vitriolic attacks on the mayor came thick and fast and it became difficult to separate fact from fiction and fantasy but in the months that followed it became apparent there were serious claims to be investigated and revelations made to the BBC through ‘whistleblower’ claims that included use of procurement cards and the alleged behaviour of an adviser to the mayor.
Some of the issues were dealt with but remaining was the key investigation into Mayor Johnson himself and that concluded this week with a code of conduct hearing by the Combined Authority that led to him apologising for aspects of his behaviour and agreeing to HR training.
The investigators report, as is often the case in local authority hearings, remains confidential but that has not stopped comment, and speculation about its alleged content.
First reaction came yesterday from Cllr Anna Bailey, leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, who said she apologised “to all those staff that have suffered at the hands of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority; the authority has failed you.
“Mayor Nik Johnson should resign”.
She was quickly followed by Cllr Fitzgerald, no longer of course leader of Peterborough City Council and so no longer with a place on the Combined Authority board, but still leader of the Conservative group on the city council.
He is no stranger to political controversy – he lost the leadership on November 1 when a no confidence motion passed with a preamble that included the opposition declaring they “no longer have trust or confidence in the leader of the council, their cabinet or their administration and seek an alternative leader and administration”.
It continued: “The political attacks and weaponization of the council administration against opposition members has led to the relationship between the leader (including his cabinet) and the opposition groups (including former group members) deteriorating to such an extent that the delivery of our council services and having majority consent on major policy including the budget are at risk.”
But Cllr Fitzgerald remains a strong influence within Conservative circles and the conduct hearing into Mayor Johnson serves his purpose well.
I would like to apologise to the people of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough for the behaviour shown here by the leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council. It's mortifying that she represents our district both at home in East Cambridgeshire and on the Combined Authority. https://t.co/jM7poeU9U4
— Lorna Dupré 🇯🇪 🔶 (@lornadupre) November 15, 2023
Days earlier he announced he had been approved by the Conservative Party to compete to become a candidate to be Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough in the 2025 election.
And he said he would now be “pushing myself forward to seek the candidacy and win that election when it comes”.
So, the timing of the conduct hearing into Mayor Johnson was his gift from God – which he quickly unwrapped.
Last night he announced he issued a statement headed, quite naturally, RESIGN.
He said: “Yesterday, after two years of waiting, and following an extensive investigation and over £1 million pounds spent on this matter on settling staff complaints, the Mayor, Nik Johnson was required to apologise for his serious failings in civility towards staff, and for bringing the office of mayor into disrepute”.
By way of explanation, at this point, it should be added the £1m figure is not as claimed: the BBC reported today that it has seen an email sent to Cllr Bailey by the chief executive Rob Bridge of the Combined Authority with a breakdown of the figure.
Although £320,005 is the sum paid to four staff allegedly “to avoid employment claims”, the bulk of the cash – £651, 733 – was to pay interim staff “over and above” normal salaries for those roles. In other words, it would seem, the Combined Authority used interim staff to fill vacancies – a common occurrence across the whole spectrum of local government these days.
However, the figures also include £43,092 in legal costs linked to the four staff who left, £34,080 to audit spending in the mayor’s office, and £31,112 investigating the code of conduct complaints about Mayor Johnson.
There was also a sum of £13,180 for mediation involving the mayor and £461 on personal protection alarms for staff.
To return, though, to Cllr Fitzgerald who noted the hearings committee “held the substantial debate about the mayor’s failings in private, so we will never know the full details of the investigation that was undertaken because of the need to protect the victims of his behaviour from public exposure.
“However, this is being perceived as a stage-managed affair by many to shield the mayor from further public scrutiny as the combined authority has refused to release the full report into the investigation.
“I am also asking today that the Combined Authority board press for full public disclosure of the report as they can redact the names of those who have been mistreated.
“The Combined Authority must show the voting public the true extent of the appalling behaviour to which the staff were subjected. The public deserves to know exactly what has been going here.”
Cllr Fitzgerald said: “For example, the board were previously told that the former chief executive (Eileen Milner) was issued with a panic alarm, and her home security was increased, all at the CPCA’s expense. Why was this?
“The board were also told that a more junior female member of staff was also issued with a panic alarm and was instructed not to allow herself to be alone in the office with the Mayor.
“Further, the board was also told that fully half the CPCA’s staff, and the whole of the staff in the mayor’s office, had resigned or been dismissed, and their posts remained unfilled, little more than a year after the mayor took up his post.
“In essence, the findings against the mayor show that a supposedly senior professional, a children’s doctor no less, was totally unequipped then, and remains so now, to fulfil the role of mayor.
“He admitted it himself in his apology and the sub-committee chairman (John Pye) made further comment, saying that in future, any new mayor should have a thorough induction programme so the shambolic start of Nik Johnson’s tenure could not be repeated.”
Cllr Fitzgerald said: “I would maintain that he started out as an unconsciously incompetent nomination for the role and after the hearing he has had to admit after two years to have progressed to the underwhelming position of being knowingly incompetent.
“Even while apologising, the mayor had to put a political spin on what should have been an unreservedly apologetic statement.
“He said that the previous administration was ‘an organisation that I saw as being in desperate need of life support’ when in reality his tenure has reversed the good work of the previous mayor (James Palmer) and in his place delivered little or nothing to speak of on his own merit.
“Nearly if not all of the senior officers have left, and the work of the combined authority has been subject to drift and lost opportunities.
“Let’s not forget the millions of pounds wasted or that has been returned to government as projects failed to be delivered.
“Even worse, he managed to put the authority into ‘special measures’ from government via a best value notice following serious concerns raised by the auditors Ernst Young about the financial controls in the authority and which demanded immediate improvement.
“He has been required to undertake training over the next six months to make sure never again will he treat employees inappropriately and has been required to give an undertaking not to do it again and issue apologies to the board and the individuals who have been affected who would be willing to receive an apology from the mayor.”
He concluded: “As the old proverb goes, physician, heal thyself!’. Mayor Dr Nik Johnson should do the decent thing and go now.”
So where to from here? Quite simply to the next board meeting of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.
That will be on November 29, from 10am, at Peterborough town hall.
And although he is no longer a member, expect to hear from Cllr Bailey, of course, and the only other Conservative board member, Cllr Chris Boden, leader of Fenland District Council.
He prefers to stay off social media so we must await his contemplative reflections then.
A Combined Authority spokesperson said: “It would be inappropriate to make any comment on allegations about what is contained within the confidential report from the independent investigator.
“Commenting, or making speculative claims, and or statements, at this stage is inappropriate and risks identifying individuals involved throughout the independent process.”
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