A HIGHLY paid council boss will receive only a quarter of her £160,000-a-year salary as a pay-off after agreeing to leave her post.

Somerset County Council said yesterday (Wednesday) the departure of chief executive Sheila Wheeler had been reached by “mutual agreement”.

Ms Wheeler, who has been away from County Hall since November – and on full-paid absence since about mid-December – will receive three months’ pay in lieu of notice - about £40,000.

When Ms Wheeler’s absence began, 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 yesterday, when it confirmed Ms Wheeler had left on Friday.

The authority said: “It's been frustrating for the council to be unable to respond to criticism in the media because we are satisfied the matter was being dealt with in the most appropriate way possible.

“The reason the process has taken some time is because it was necessary to deal with a complaint that had been made against other individuals within the council.

“At the council's request, the complaint was investigated by an independent QC who concluded there was no wrongdoing by the individuals who were the subject of the complaint.

“We cannot confirm any details about the complaint nor can we comment on whether there has been any disciplinary action involved.”

It is understood the complaint was made against both officers and councillors but it is not known who the individuals are.

A recruitment process to appoint Ms Wheeler’s permanent successor may not begin immediately.

Aside from the £40k pay-off, there will be legal costs connected to her departure which are still to be finalised.

On Tuesday, the County Gazette spoke to Ms Wheeler at her £750,000 home near Creech St Michael, where she was cordial but declined to comment.

The council’s official statement read: “Somerset County Council can announce that chief executive Sheila Wheeler has left the council by mutual agreement.

"Her arrival at the council in February 2010 coincided with the first austerity measures coming into force, resulting in major budget cuts.

"She led the council through a prolonged period where significant service and staffing reductions had to be made.

"She also brought in major changes to the way the council operates and is run. We wish her well for the future.

"Until a replacement is appointed, Patrick Flaherty, the deputy chief executive, will serve as the acting chief executive.

"Patrick is a long-standing member of staff at the council and during the last few weeks has ably led the council’s response to the floods crisis."

Prime Minister David Cameron was also quizzed on the subject when he visited Bridgwater this afternoon.