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Derry City councillors unaware they could have challenged outgoing boss's £270k redundancy payout

By Donna Deeney

Published 01/04/2015

Former Derry City Council Chief Executive Sharon O’Connor
Former Derry City Council Chief Executive Sharon O’Connor

Further concerns have been raised about the six-figure redundancy payment to a Northern Ireland council chief executive after it emerged that legal advice suggested her service was broken and the payout could have been cut.

Sharon O'Connor pocketed more than £270,000 for continuous service in local government as a director with Down District Council and then Chief Executive at Derry City Council from 2000 to 2014.

It can now be revealed that Derry City Council commissioned legal advice after it emerged there was a break of more than seven days between Ms O'Connor leaving her post with Down District Council and taking up the position with Derry City Council.

With this break in employment, Ms O'Connor's redundancy payment, which was paid for in its entirety by the ratepayers of Derry, could have been substantially lower. There is no suggestion that Ms O'Connor contravened any rules regarding her redundancy payout.

The legal advice, which has been obtained by the Belfast Telegraph, suggested that Derry City Council had a 50/50 chance of winning a legal challenge if it refused to acknowledge the continuous service. Questions have also been raised about why members of the new Derry City and Strabane District Council which rubber-stamped the payment were not made aware of the concerns raised by the old council.

Ulster Unionist Party councillor Derek Hussey said he was alarmed that the shadow councillors were asked to make a decision without being in possession of some pertinent facts.

He said: "I certainly was not aware that legal advice had been sought and I find this very worrying given that it is the ratepayers who have been left with the financial burden.

"Someone needs to fully update the new council about the situation and I am alarmed that information of this nature was not brought to us before the decision was finalised."

Independent councillor Dermot Quigley, who was also unaware that there was a break in Ms O'Connor's service and that this could have affected her redundancy package, said he intended to raise the matter urgently.

He said: "It would seem that the information brought to the shadow council had quite a few holes in it and that had we been fully aware a very different decision may have been reached.

"We were not told that legal advice had been asked about a break in Sharon O'Connor's service, nor were we told that if Derry City had refused to pay her full redundancy package they had a 50% chance of defending that decision if it was challenged.

"While I don't know the exact figure, I am sure there is a substantial difference between footing the bill for 14 years' service and footing the bill for three years' service that the Derry ratepayers have been left with. I find this so alarming that I intend to ask if there are other matters that the shadow council were asked to ratify without being fully informed, at the first available opportunity."

Story so far

Before her move to Londonderry in October 2011, Sharon O'Connor was employed as director of development with Down District Council, a position she took up in 2000 having previously run her own business after graduating from the University of Ulster. In her three years as Chief Executive of Derry City Council, she helped steer the city through two of its most successful years - the Clipper Round the World race stopover in 2012 and the City of Culture celebrations in 2013. But she also hit the headlines for public clashes with prominent figures tasked with delivering the City of Culture.

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