Town Hall reporter KEN LEE on the suggestion that the £200,000 per year council CEO couldn’t organise a rowdy drink-up in a brewery
The competence, or lack of it, of the council’s chief executive, Jo Negrini, is being called into question yet again with not one, but possibly two formal challenges being submitted over her handling of the count for the local elections a fortnight ago.
Negrini is due to have a meeting today to discuss the “shambolic” handling of the count in Shirley South ward, where tellers managed to mis-allocate hundreds of votes from Conservative candidates to Labour.
But where matters could get particularly embarrassing for Negrini is over the outcome of the election in Addiscombe East.
Inside Croydon understands that Jack Buck, Labour’s local organiser, was seeking legal advice from party HQ last week about grounds for a complaint over that result, where the Tory Jeet Bains won a council seat from Labour by an eight-vote margin.
If Croydon Labour do lodge a formal complaint here, it will amount to the council leader, Tony Newman, questioning the competency of the borough’s most senior executive, Negrini, whom he appointed.
“Effectively, it would mean that Tony is saying that Jo couldn’t organise an adding up event in a secondary school, or words to that effect,” as one wag on Katharine Street put it.
Negrini was in charge of the organisation of the local elections, in the role of returning officer for the borough.
The council CEO has meanwhile blocked Freedom of Information requests into the costs of staging elections and referendums in the borough over the past four years.
However, it is known that this year Negrini decided to spend more than £12,000 of public money to hire the sports hall at posh independent school Trinity as the venue for the count.
Town Hall sources say that Negrini was explicitly told by the Labour leadership that she was not to use public funds to bolster the wealthy Whitgift Foundation school’s budget, but to find another venue for the count. Instead, with the Fairfield Halls not available this year, Negrini still booked Trinity.
In addition to a budget to meet the costs of the borough’s polling stations and to pay council staff overtime for the overnight election count, Negrini will have received at least £10,000 herself as a returning officer fee, on top of the generous £200,000 annual salary she receives as council CEO.
Despite such amounts being spent on running the Croydon count, the results from the borough’s 28 wards were noticeably slower coming through than from other London boroughs which conducted their counts through the early hours of the morning. While the likes of Westminster and Wandsworth, with a number of close results requiring careful scrutiny, had packed up and gone home with their count complete by around 4am, in Croydon it took another two hours before the final result was declared at 6.30am.
Since Negrini took over as chief executive, a number of the council’s more experienced staff, especially in the democratic services department, have taken redundancy and early retirement. That lack of experience may have showed at the count.
Shirley South is a true-blue, south of the borough ward. So much so that Communications Workers Union official Dave Percival, one of the Labour candidates in the ward, had already gone home before the count was completed.
What he missed, as Negrini’s count staff prepared to declare the result, was the local Tories “in total meltdown” over what they were witnessing.
Just after 3am on May 4 there was a call for a recount after Negrini’s team of counters produced a result sheet that showed that Percival had snatched a seemingly impossible victory for Labour.
Trouble was, Percival’s unlikely success really was impossible, until Negrini’s staff managed to misallocate more than 300 Tory votes for the Labour candidates.
The first result declaration sheet that was produced on the night was annotated with “Jo” scribbled in pencil at the top, indicating that it had been seen and approved by the returning officer herself.
This sheet showed the count for the two-seat ward had 1,547 votes for Jason Cummings, the deputy leader of the Tory group; 1,470 for “elected” Percival; 1,469 for the other Labour candidate, Marzia Nicodemi; and 1,445 for Scott Roche, the other Conservative candidate.
A recount was called for. “The Conservative pack descended on the Shirley South tables,” Nicodemi said. “I had never seen anything like it. They were angry and in shock. I just watched them in disbelief.”
Percival had hurriedly returned to the sports hall after getting a message from Nicodemi. More than two hours later, a “more correct” result was declared. This time, Cummings had 1,869 votes, Roche 1,766 and both the Labour candidates had exactly the same number of votes, 1,150.
Nicodemi is convinced that this “final” result still leaves much to be desired, and is incorrect. She has called the conduct of the count a “farce” and “shambolic”.
“The explanation given that 500 votes had been inputted wrongly does not make much sense,” she said. “The fact that Dave and I received the same number of votes does not make sense either.”
Nicodemi wrote to her local party leader, Newman, two days after polling day, on May 5. “Dave and I seem to have obtained the same number of votes, which is almost impossible or an eerie coincidence as not everybody voted for both of us.
“I want to look into the matter. Will the Labour Party assist me or have I got to do it alone? The unprofessional way of counting votes is frightening.”
Newman has never replied or acknowledged her email, but Nicodemi has pursued the matter and was due to have a meeting with Negrini in Fisher’s Folly today. She is considering contesting the result not because of any expectation that the ultimate outcome was wrong, but out of a real concern that the count was not conducted properly or reliably.
“I will ask Negrini to let me know the number of voters by polling station and of postal votes/proxies per polling station.
“I doubt Negrini & Co’s competence and wonder how many other mistakes were made. I intend to go ahead if not satisfied with the explanation.
“It is my strong belief that Croydon Council is not fit for purpose.”
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