Sutton’s LibDems have been caught out over attempts to hijack publicly funded council business for the benefit of their own party’s election prospects, as BELLE MONT reports
Inside Croydon’s revelations this week that Sutton’s ruling Liberal Democrats were trying to use public resources to promote their bid for re-election has led to a rapid U-turn, as the council’s professional staff moved to shutdown blatantly political appropriation of a supposedly non-politcal “consultation”.
One of the council’s most senior officers was even forced into issuing an apology over the way the LibDems had tried to hijack council public meetings for their own political purposes.
Tory councillors and Labour Party activists both lodged strong complaints about the way in which the LibDems had manipulated the agenda for the Sutton Local Committee meeting due to be held tomorrow night, at which the area’s Liberal Democrat councillors had allocated themselves 90 minutes to deliver presentations on their “successes”, while giving just 15 minutes to residents to hold the councillors to account.
The councillors representing Sutton North – council leader Ruth Dombey, Stephen Penneck and committee chair Marlene Heron – even posted on their ward website that they would be making these presentations, long before the agenda was issued, clear evidence that the agenda items were wholly concocted for the advantage of the Liberal Democrats.
Labour activist Andy Cook quickly fired off a formal complaint to Niall Bolger, the council chief exec, and Jessica Crowe, Sutton’s governance chief. Cook was demanding action to prevent the local committee and some Sutton’s Future roadshows being used as LibDem campaign events.
Initially, it seemed that Bolger – who has worked closely with Dombey and Sutton’s LibDems since taking on the council top job seven years ago – wanted to ignore the complaints. Outside Monday night’s council meeting, when Bolger was pressed about the roadshows, witnesses report that the chief executive told a resident that the matter was “not open to discussion”.
But by Tuesday, Cook had received a more conciliatory email from Crowe which said, “The agenda for Sutton Local Committee is being withdrawn and a revised agenda issued.” The revised agenda omits the lengthy presentations from LibDem councillors.
Crowe had also been contacted on the matter by Tory councillor Neil Garrett. In her reply to Garratt, Crowe said, “I am writing to apologise for the content and format of the Sutton Local Committee agenda and meeting this week.
“This should not have been issued in the way it was, and I regret that officers did not properly advise members of the correct way to hold the debate they wished to have on the topics they wished to discuss.
“Items 6, 7 and 8…”, the LibDems’ political presentations, “…on this agenda will be withdrawn tomorrow and a revised agenda issued to clarify that updates will be provided by officers on the topics on which it is appropriate for the Local Committee to receive an update. Members can then debate the issues as they wish in the meeting.
“Thank you for drawing this to our attention and my apologies once again that this has happened.”
It was not only the local committee where the LibDems, who have run Sutton like a one-party fiefdom since 1990, tried to pull a fast one, and got caught out.
The council had previously announced, at very short-notice, that it would be “re-launching” a campaign called “Sutton’s Future”, with roadshow events in all six Local Committee areas across the borough. Council officials running the roadshows would ask residents to sign an anti-austerity petition.Both the Conservative opposition and Labour activists complained loudly. They claimed that the Sutton’s Future campaign had been resurrected just before purdah for the May local elections to portray the underfire LibDem-run council in a positive light, and that the petition was highly political.
Opposition parties had further cause for complaint on Monday when the schedule for the roadshows was sent to councillors. The promise of holding roadshows in all local committee areas had been quietly dropped.
“This whole fiasco tells us exactly the kind of underhand tactics the Liberal Democrats are going to use in these elections,” said Tim Crowley, the leader of the Conservative opposition on Sutton Council.
“There are several areas that will not have a roadshow. It’s just a coincidence, I’m sure, that these areas are almost exclusively Conservative-controlled. The whole of the Sutton South, Cheam and Belmont committee area has no roadshow, and neither does the Carshalton South and Clockhouse ward. Yet there are two roadshows in the Carshalton area, one in the High Street, and one a few hundred yards away at Carshalton College, right opposite the office of LibDem MP Tom Brake.”
In Cook’s complaint to Crowe, he said, “It is clear that these roadshows are nothing more than electioneering on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, using council resources, which is contrary to the standards you are supposed to uphold.”
At the roadshows, council officials will have been expected to get residents to sign an anti-austerity petition. Inside Croydon understands that now all mention of the petition at roadshows has been banned.
In reference to the proposed petition, Crowe also stated in her response that “we will be taking it down from any online pages once we enter purdah”.
But Charlie Mansell, a Labour candidate at the local elections in Beddington North, told Inside Croydon: “If this petition is not political in nature, then why does the council have to take it down once purdah begins?
“This is just further evidence that even officers know this supposed ‘campaign’ is sailing close to the wind. The backtracking is proof that the LibDems have been rumbled.”
Mansell said that Labour Party activists will be attending Thursday night’s local committee meeting, “to ensure that the Lib Dems don’t find another sneaky way to do exactly what they intended in the first place.
“We will hold them to account,” Mansell said.
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