Council claims that conduct of elections is a ‘private matter’

Croydon Council has been breaking the law to keep some details of its senior appointments secret, and it is refusing to reveal details of the new chief executive’s work in his role as the returning officer for the recent local and European elections.

town-hall-full.jpgKenley resident Paul Williams has made requests under the Freedom of Information Act regarding senior executive appointments at Fisher’s Folly. The council failed to provide answers to some of his requests within the 20-day period demanded by the law. And then they largely failed to provide answers to his request. Such is the on-going culture of openness and transparency at Croydon Council.

The council is claiming that they are “experiencing problems with the computer system we use for such requests”, apparently using the Crapita IT handover shambles that was resolved in early June for prolonged – and law-breaking – delays in FoI responses in the two months since.

But Williams’ persistent questioning has at least managed to reveal that Croydon Council broke its own rules over the interim appointment of Nathan Elvery as the borough’s CEO last year. According to the council, its policy states that interim appointments “should aim to be for a maximum time period of six months”.

Elvery was only confirmed in the £180,000-a-year role earlier this month – without any debate or questions asked by Labour or Conservative councillors – some 15 months after he had been installed as interim CEO following the somewhat hurried departure of his boss, Jon Rouse.

Council Leader Tony Newman, left, and his choice of CEO, Nathan Elvery, share a joke at a council meeting

Council Leader Tony Newman, left, and his choice of CEO, Nathan Elvery, share a joke at a council meeting

The reasoning for this was that it left this key appointment in the hands of the in-coming political administration after the 2014 local elections. And on the recommendation of the council’s existing senior management, including Borough Solicitor Julie Belvir, Labour has opted to continue with the council’s existing senior management.

Most extraordinary of the council’s responses to the FoIs was the answer – or lack of it – to a reasonable enquiry about how Croydon’s local elections were managed.

In a response that appears to have come directly from the desk of Belvir, the council claims that Elvery’s job as the borough’s returning officer – a very public role at the crux of local democracy – is a private matter.

Elvery get the gig as returning officer by virtue of his being the council CEO. On top of his CEO’s salary, Elvery is paid £20,000 of public cash for acting as the returning officer for elections.

The conduct of Croydon’s elections came in for considerable criticism, from the choice of venue – paying thousands of pounds of public money to a local private school as a hire fee, rather than using a council-owned building in the centre of town – to the failure of the returning officer to recruit enough trained and experienced tellers to ensure a swift and efficient count. While most other London boroughs were able to declare the result of their Town Hall elections by 3am on May 23, Croydon was still counting votes from some wards more than six hours later. It was several days before full results without any errors were made available.

Croydon Council’s non-response to Williams’ enquiry states: “The appointment as Returning Officer is separate to the appointment as Chief Executive and, although appointed by the council, the Returning Officer’s responsibilities and duties are personal…

“The Returning Officer does not carry out the duties on behalf of the local authority but in his own personal capacity… The Freedom of Information Act does not list any person appointed under the Representation of the People Act 1983. It follows that the Electoral Registration Officer, Returning Officer or any other person appointed under the Act are not subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.

“Therefore we are unable to respond to your request.” It took them four weeks to come up with that stonewall.

The local election count in Croydon on May 22: this picture shows Jo Negrini, left, the council's development director, earning a bit of extra pin money by helping out on the night. This, according to Croydon Council, is a private matter

The local election count in Croydon on May 22: this picture shows Jo Negrini, left, the council’s six-figure salaried development director, earning a bit of  pin money by helping out on the night. This, according to Croydon Council, is a private matter.Picture from the BBC

Williams has written to Tony Newman, Labour’s Leader of the Council, but has not received any reply. He has referred the matter for an internal review, a necessary step before lodging a complaint with the Information Commissioner –  just the latest in a long line of such complaints about Croydon’s attitude to their responsibilities and accountability.

“I am not going to give this up,” Williams told Inside Croydon. “The answer on the election is outrageous.

“Elvery has to answer that, as he is paid around £20,000 to organise the votes. It is the second time I have been brushed off by the council when it comes to holding elections, especially as many of the staff that were doing the work were council staff.

“It is another example of the council’s evasiveness when it comes to FoI. I am now more than convinced that this position should be separated out from the council. I am sure a retired judge or returning officer would be better placed to do this role.”


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This entry was posted in 2014 council elections, Capita, Croydon Council, Jo Negrini, Jon Rouse, Julie Belvir, Nathan Elvery, Tony Newman and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Council claims that conduct of elections is a ‘private matter’

  1. mraemiller says:

    “The council failed to provide answers to some of his requests within the 20-day period demanded by the law” He’s lucky the FOI web portal was working at all. It was offline for something like a week. Let’s not set the bar too high.

  2. tomvoute says:

    Blaming the computer system is the last refuge of a scoundrel (Dr Johnson, updated a bit).

    Anyway, as a former local government officer in other local authorities (now retired), managing public money and resources, I always believed that the principle is really very simple: everything must be in the public domain, unless there are very specific, clearly defined, reasons why it shouldn’t be.

    There are not many legitimate reasons to keep things secret. The main one is usually to respect the privacy of members of the public who have dealings with the council. “Commercial confidentiality” on the other hand is usually invoked without any proper justification and is a much abused category.

    I have had a number of battles for openness in my time where secrecy was used to keep mismanagement and mistakes covered up. I sometimes trained new entrants and I always told them: “the public has the right to know everything about what you are doing. If you are doing something you don’t like the public to know about, you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”.

    British national and local government and other public bodies have always been addicted to a culture of secrecy. The struggle for more openness about what actually goes on on behalf of voters and tax payers goes back at least four decades. We still need persistent people like Paul Williams. Don’t let them wear you down!

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