Northern Ireland Water has been thrown into chaos by the threatened resignation of Trevor Haslett, its interim chief executive, in a row over pay.
It is understood that Mr Haslett has received an offer to work in the private sector.
He was seeking an increase in his current £130,000 salary as a condition of staying on permanently.
Laurence McKenzie, his predecessor, reportedly earned £180,000 for the same job, and his total package of benefits was worth up to £250,000.
“Trevor doesn’t want the gap with Laurence McKenzie’s £180k bridged but he wants the gap narrowed,” a source close to the negotiations said.
It is understood that the board is recommending an increase to the Department of Regional Development which owns NIW.
The board had made an offer that would have satisfied Mr Haslett but it had not been approved by the department.
Now NIW intends to convene an emergency meeting of its board to deal with the situation, perhaps as early as today.
Last night a spokesman said: “NI Water chair Sean Hogan has confirmed that interim chief executive Trevor Haslett has indicated his intention to offer his resignation to the board. A full statement will be issued in due course.”
It is understood that Mr Hogan will first speak to Danny Kennedy, the Minister for Regional Development.
The minister is said to be keen to keep Mr Haslett in post but was in Dublin and unavailable for comment yesterday.
Jimmy Spratt, the DUP MLA who chairs the Regional Development Committee at Stormont, described the news of Mr Haslett’s pending resignation as “a bolt from the blue” .
He praised Mr Haslett’s qualities as a leader and manager.
Mr Spratt said: “I’m disappointed that Mr Haslett intends to resign as interim chief executive.
“During his time in the post Mr. Haslett has helped increase morale amongst staff and has been overseeing some good work with regard to the water infrastructure in the province.
“It is vital that the position is filled as soon as possible.
“It would not be beneficial for anyone to have NIW facing a difficult winter period without a chief executive and proper leadership.
“No one wants a repeat of the shambolic approach to the bad weather last Christmas.”
Mr Haslett would be the third chief executive to resign from the troubled company since it was established in 2004.
In 2008 Katherine Bryan, who had been in charge for four years, left her post after a multi-million-pound funding blunder threatened to force an increase in water bills.
Mr McKenzie resigned in |January.
Peter Robinson had described the company’s handling of last winter’s big freeze, when burst pipes left 40,000 homes without supply, as “shambolic”.
After that Mr Haslett, who was head of engineering with Northern Ireland Water, was asked to take charge on an interim basis.
At the time a question mark was raised over the appointment because he had earlier been reprimanded following an inquiry into tendering.
Value for money had not been demonstrated for £4m out of a total investment of £1.6b in renewing the mains.
In his defence it was said that he had cut red tape to get urgent repairs done on time.
Since taking over he has been highly regarded by both staff, and the Department of Regional Development.
The issue brings into sharp relief the treatment of senior executives in publicly-owned companies who are generally subjected to more criticism and scrutiny by press and politicians than their private sector counterparts, as well as receiving less pay.