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Why does Derry City Council’s £107k-a-year chief need a mentor at £500 per day?

Outrage has greeted the news that the newly-appointed chief executive of Derry City Council is to receive mentoring for a period of 12 months at a cost of £500 per day plus expenses.

Sharon O’Connor, who will be paid an annual salary starting at £107,500 plus expenses, takes up her post next Monday.

She had previously held a senior post with Down District Council.

A closed meeting of the council will take place today where a confidential report seen by the Belfast Telegraph will recommend that the council approve the appointment of London-based Annie Ralph as mentor for the new chief executive.

Ms Ralph is expected to be accepted for the post.

The information has been met with outrage from the Secretary of the Derry Trades Council, who described it as “reprehensible”.

Liam Gallagher, who also represents many of the lower paid council staff, said: “It is wholly inappropriate that public money is being wasted in this way and this will be like a slap for our members in the council who have had a pay freeze for almost three years now, many who are earning just £1 above minimum wage.

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“Derry City Council raised the salary of the chief executive by 11% which was supposed to attract an expert in the field, and now we learn the person appointed is to enjoy a period of hand-holding exercises to prepare her for her job.

“Our members will feel very badly let down by these double standards.

“This sends out all the wrong messages.”

The report further recommended that council approve £5,000 be paid towards rent at Ms O'Connor's request, in lieu of removal expenses she may have incurred coming from Co Down to live in Derry.

Last January the Belfast Telegraph revealed that Derry City Council had approved a £10,000 salary increase for whoever would replace the outgoing chief executive Valerie Watts despite staff at the council suffering a two-year pay freeze.

At the time, the reason given for the pay increase was “to attract the right calibre of candidate”.

The report details reasons for the mentoring.

It states: “The scheme is to complement the induction process and is not designed as a substitute.

“The programme should benefit the new chief executive to: Improve self-confidence by testing one-to-one relationships with a non-stakeholder in the organisation.

“Learn to cope with the informal and formal structure of Local Government.

“Facilitate access to information which would otherwise be difficult to obtain.

“It is proposed that Ms Annie Ralph, the independent professional assessor at the selection interview, is appointed as the mentor of the town clerk and chief executive.

“It is proposed that in the first 12 months there would be six days of mentoring.

“Costs are £500 per day, plus expenses, for the standard mentoring programme, however if more specific and complex assistance is required, the daily rate is £600.”

The report outlines the benefit of providing a mentor for Ms O'Connor which includes “encourage the chief executive in his (sic) new role, teach the chief executive in the appropriate skills to manage in his (sic) new role”.

The previous chief executive and town clerk of Derry City Council left her post at the Guildhall earlier this year.

Since then, deputy town clerk John Meehan has held the position during an extensive recruitment drive to find Ms Watts' replacement.

On September 6, Derry City Council announced that Ms O'Connor, who at that time was the director of development with Down District Council, was the successful candidate. A council spokeswoman defended her credentials.

She said: “Ms O’Connor is a business and local government professional with over 25 years’ experience.

“She has been the director of development with Down District Council since 2000.

“Her non-executive experience includes Arts Council NI and the BBC Broadcasting Council in Northern Ireland.

“Prior to working in local government, she ran her own successful business and also has an extensive background in the community and voluntary sectors.

“A graduate of the University of Ulster with an MA, she also holds a range of professional qualifications including marketing and personnel.

“She was the first local government person to achieve chartered director status and was named the NI Public Sector Director of the Year.”

The report also states: “The town clerk and chief executive is entitled to the following payment — the council may reimburse fully or contribute towards the costs incurred of removal and in setting up a new home in the council area subject to a limit of £5,000.

“Given the current and likely continuing adverse economic climate, she (Ms O'Connor) has requested she receive payment towards rent in lieu of removal expenses.

“It is proposed, in line with similar arrangements previously put in place for two other officers, namely Valerie Watts and Julian Benbow, that this request is granted.”

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