MORE than a third of councillors walked out of a meeting to discuss a £40,000 pay-off for Somerset County Council’s chief executive because “they did not want to be part of the process”.

Sheila Wheeler had been away from County Hall since November and on full-paid absence since about mid-December but the County Gazette revealed last week that she will receive three months’ pay in lieu of notice – a quarter of her £160,000-a-year salary.

Before the confidential papers were handed out at last Wednesday’s full council meeting, all the members from the opposition LibDems and independent councillor Hugh Davies left.

LibDem leader Cllr Sam Crabb said the decision to leave had been made before the meeting took place.

He said: “We feel it is a great shame the chief executive has not been in her post for the past few months and it is not good use of taxpayers’ money. If we had stayed in the meeting we would have been complicit to the decision – we did not want to be involved in the process.”

A spokesman for Somerset County Council this week said legal costs connected with Ms Wheeler’s departure are still to be finalised and Patrick Flaherty, deputy chief executive, will serve as the acting chief executive.

Independent councillor Nigel Pearson said he felt the pay-off figure was an excellent result for the council. He said: “From the outset, it could have gone to £500,000 and cost the ratepayer a lot of money.

“I do not think they will be rushing in for a replacement.”

Cllr Davies said he walked out of the meeting because he wasn’t happy with how the situation had been handled, adding: “We don’t even know the half of what has gone; I guess the payout could have been a lot more.”

Cllr Leigh Redman said all the Labour members stayed to look at the confidential papers. He added: “I am pleased the council has been able to agree a position with Sheila. The person selected [to replace Ms Wheeler] will have a hard job in the current financial climate.”