SOMERSET County Council racked up a bill of £55,000 in legal costs relating to the departure of its former chief executive Sheila Wheeler.

The authority also spent £109,000 "defending itself against a complaint against several individuals within the council," unrelated to the departure of Ms Wheeler.

Ms Wheeler left her post in February by "mutual agreement" and was given a £40,000 pay-off, a quarter of her £160,00-a-year salary.

The £55,000 legal fees include costs for drawing up the legal agreement signed by both sides, the council announced last night (March 31).

A statement read: "The council said that it would confirm the costs when this was possible and the information is being published on its website and released to the media.

"In any dispute with a chief executive officer, a council has to follow nationally agreed statutory guidelines and appoint an independent barrister. Somerset County Council complied with this statutory process.

"The cost for this process has now been published and totals £55,000. These are the only legal costs directly relating to the departure of the then chief executive in February and include costs for drawing up the legal agreement signed by both sides.

"Sheila Wheeler left the authority with a three month notice period paid up – a total of £40,000. There were no pension contributions on top of this sum."

The authority added that it could not comment further on the £109,000 bill "for legal reasons."

When Ms Wheeler’s absence began in November, the council initially said she was “on sick leave”, then in January a statement said simply she was “not in the office at this time”, a position the authority did not flinch from until her official departure.

She had been on full-paid absence since about mid-December.

At a meeting to discuss her £40,000 pay-off, more than a third of councillors walked out because “they did not want to be part of the process."