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Fire authority anger at being "kept in the dark" over chief's £3,000 back op
QUESTIONS are being asked over why a controversial decision to pay a fire chief £3,000 towards his back operation was done in secret - amid angry claims the public were "kept in the dark".
Members of the fire authority say they are unhappy they did not have a say about taxpayers' cash going towards Mark Yates' private surgery.
As your Worcester News revealed yesterday, a small group of just four councillors approved the spending for the chief fire officer behind closed doors.
It emerged yesterday that members of the fire authority, a body of 25 elected councillors, were not told about it, with some saying they are "outraged" it came out in the media first.
Labour Councillor Alan Amos, a fire authority member, said: "I am outraged, appalled and disgusted.
"I have been fighting so hard to get the fire service more money, to protect it from cuts.
"It can't be that every single decision made can come before the fire authority, I realise that, but to know nothing about it infuriates me.
"It was a little cohort of people making this decision, it can't be right - the public could read it and wrongly assume we've all been involved in this.
"Where is the openness? I feel badly let down."
Conservative Councillor Maurice Broomfield, a fellow member, said: "I would have liked to have been informed about it.
"I did not know this had happened. I wouldn't like to say whether the actual decision was right or wrong, but it would have been good to know what's going on and be told."
Councillor Stephen Peters, an independent, added: "In the full scheme of things £3,000 isn't a lot of money.
"But I didn't know anything about it, I wasn't told."
Steve Gould, secretary for the county's Fire Brigades Union branch, yesterday insisted front line staff had asked for money to overcome injury and "always been knocked back".
As your Worcester News revealed yesterday, back in October Mr Yates decided to get back surgery privately instead of waiting 12 weeks on the NHS and take time off work.
It cost £5,090 and Mr Yates, who earns £122,000 a year, made a claim for the cash from the fire service.
It was approved during a routine fire authority group leaders meeting on Monday, October 21 but no minutes were taken of the actual decision.
Councillor Derek Prodger, fire authority chairman, said the panel agreed a partial repayment rather than risk Mr Yates being off work for 12 weeks.
Yesterday Cllr Prodger said: "We believe the NHS waiting list for the operation was around 12 weeks and if this had been the case the authority would have needed to pay for another chief officer to cover the role, which would have been very costly."
He added: "It was all done properly, and it saved us money."
The fire service say the cost could have amounted to £8,500 to provide cover had he been off for the whole 12 weeks.
REVEALED - WHO MADE THE DECISION
ALL four councillors involved in the decision to hand over £3,000 can today be named - as one insisted it was "clear cut".
As well as Cllr Prodger fire authority vice-chairman Brigadier Peter Jones, a fellow Conservative, and David Taylor, an independent, agreed the payment.
Cllr Jones, a Herefordshire politician, revealed yesterday that the discussion was very straightforward for the trio.
He confirmed the only dissenting voice was Councillor Richard Udall, Labour group leader, who revealed he was against it in your Worcester News yesterday.
Cllr Jones said: "To the three of us, it was very clear cut. We looked at it properly and thought it was the right thing to do."
Cllr Taylor has denied being present at the meeting despite the other three confirming he was.
He did not return calls from your Worcester News yesterday, after telling us on Friday he had no recollection of it.
Regular meetings of the political party group leaders take place around four times a year at the main HQ in Worcester.
The actual debate and decision on Mr Yates' expenses was not minuted but the rest of the session was, although it is not being made available to the public.
We can also reveal that a treasurer and legal adviser were present for the debate, but Mr Yates left the room before it started.
Councillor Fran Oborski was invited as Liberal group representative, but was unable to be there.
Readers of our website yesterday praised your Worcester News for bringing it into the open via a Freedom of Information request.
Maggie Would wrote: "The sight of that sentence gladdens my heart - investigative journalism."
Althorn said: "Well done Worcester News for breaking this story. This is what local newspaper journalism is all about."
A poster called Brooksider posted: "Making the spending decision at a private meeting? The fire authority have proved themselves to be not fit for purpose yet again."
The fire service said the members decided it was "in the authority's best interests" to pay for the private operation to have Mr Yates back at work quicker.
The fire authority operates under the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, and is required to develop its own policies for areas like expenses.
It can be dealt with by the chairman using his own delegated powers, which is in line with the authority's constitution.
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