The police and crime commissioner for Avon and Somerset has defended appointing a close ally as her second-in-command.
Critics said it was an “insult to the democratic process” when Sue Mountstevens chose John Smith, who had been her office’s chief executive and was in the running to replace her, for the role of deputy.
She denied that it would give him an unfair advantage if he stands for election next year – the vote due this week was delayed by the coronavirus crisis, forcing Ms Mounstevens to stay on.
Chief constable Andy Marsh has also had to deny claims the boundaries between their offices were blurred after he endorsed Mr Smith for the £39,000 part-time role.
Speaking to BBC Radio Bristol, Ms Mounstevens said: “Half of PCCs already have a deputy. I’ve done this job for eight years and not wanted or needed a deputy, but it’s the sheer emergency we’re in and the amount of work that we’re having to do that I need some help.”
Ms Mountstevens could have appointed Mr Smith directly, and initially planned to, but moved to an open selection process after a request from the police and crime panel.
His appointment was supported by a majority of nine to six during a virtual hearing on 23rd April.
Speaking at the time, Councillor Janet Keen said: “I am not questioning the ability of Mr Smith or his achievements.
“But there is a red line – someone who has resigned from a post, declared himself a candidate, and says he intends to be a candidate again when all this is over.
“I feel this is an insult to the democratic process. I don’t think the panel process was open – it was almost a charade.”
In a letter to Ms Mountstevens, chairman Richard Brown said the panel had felt “rushed into making a decision”.
He said there needed to be a clear case for having a deputy after eight years without one, and had questioned where she should appoint “a person who had until four months earlier been your CEO and friend”, who resigned to stand as PCC.
Mark Shelford, the Conservative candidate for PCC who was also in the running for the role of deputy, said: “If the social media posts I’ve seen are true, it seems the process was predetermined and there was no real business case for appointing a deputy.
“It’s very disappointing and seems to be a waste of everybody’s time.”
He asked why Ms Mounstevens had not reappointed Mr Smith as the chief executive, rather than as her deputy.
Defending the recruitment process, the PCC told BBC Radio Bristol: “The majority of the panel have supported the appointment of a deputy. Every request the panel said to me, I followed.
“It couldn’t have been more open and transparent.
“I didn’t have to do that. I’m not sure it gives him [Mr Smith] any advantage. We don’t have an election this year.
“This is all to do with governance. It’s changed dramatically because of the crisis.”
Ms Mountstevens’ role is to hold Avon and Somerset Police to account.
She denied that the boundaries had been blurred after a letter emerged showing Mr Marsh had endorsed Mr Smith as her deputy.
Speaking on BBC Radio Somerset, the chief constable said he wrote the letter on 17th March, nearly a week before the lockdown was announced, because the police was considering how it would cope with an “unprecedented national crisis”.
He said it was sensible for Ms Mountstevens to appoint a deputy and had been told Mr Smith would fill the role.
She said Mr Marsh’s endorsement did not stand when the selection process opened up.
“I’m operationally independent and I would fiercely protect that,” said Mr Marsh. “Any leader would recognise there’s necessary role of good governance.
“What would have happened if she hadn’t appointed a deputy and had fallen ill? Back then we were told fatalities of hundreds of thousands were predicted. That would have been an invidious position to put the office of the PCC in.
“My letter certainly wasn’t politically motivated. It’s about the protection of good governance.”
He denied that the “lines had been blurred” between the roles of Ms Mountstevens and himself.
Stephen Sumner, Local Democracy Reporter