Our Town Hall reporter, KEN LEE, on the latest snippet of what passes for public accountability in the mysterious case of the vanishing deputy cabinet member. And how Inside Croydon is setting the council agenda – again
The “serious incident” which last month led to the sudden resignation of Labour’s Fairfield ward councillor Niro Sirisena, is now “subject to a police investigation”.
That’s according to council leader Tony Newman, speaking at last night’s full meeting of the council in the Town Hall chamber.
Newman – who appears increasingly uncomfortable with public scrutiny – refused to provide any further details about the circumstances which have led to Council Tax-payers incurring the cost of a by-election next month.
Newman has failed to handle the Sirisena situation well, trying to hide from public scrutiny by claiming the matter is subject to legal action. Newman has meanwhile sent out his local councillors and activists to fight a by-election campaign with no plausible explanation to offer on the doorstep to voters who, not unreasonably, are demanding to know what caused the vanishing act by their erstwhile councillor, someone whom the council leader thought was responsible enough to be promoted to the role of deputy cabinet member just days after first being elected to the council in 2018.
Newman and his numpties clearly want to shut down this bubbling potential scandal before it costs them too much political capital. Yet at every turn, Newman and whoever is advising him on how to manage a crisis only succeed in making the matter worse.
Last night’s council meeting was a case in point. Newman had two gilt-edged opportunities to anticipate the questions that might be raised on the topic and control the narrative of the meeting. Yet he tossed them away.
He might have delivered a prepared statement at the top of the meeting, under the formal announcements section, and so draw a line under the matter for the rest of the evening. He chose not to do so.
He might even have outsourced the responsibility to the chief executive, Jo Negrini, and got her to read some sort of explanatory statement in her announcements, right after she made the announcement that Sirisena had resigned and that there is going to be a by-election. But Newman chose not to do that, either.
So, inevitably, it invited a question on the matter from the opposition benches, providing them with another chance of making political capital over the unexplained fate of a high-profile Labour councillor who, until recently, had even had a job working for Croydon Central MP Sarah Jones.
Sent into bat on that one was Croydon Tories’ prospective parliamentary candidate for Jones’s Croydon Central seat, Mario Creatura, who telegraphed his intention by laboriously teeing up the Sirisena question by putting to Newman the oft-stated claim that he wanted to make his administration the most open and transparent council in the borough’s history.
“Do you stand by that claim?” the smarmy Creatura grinned.
Under other circumstances, this might have been described as the “when did you stop beating your wife?” question. But when Newman gave Creatura the only answer anyone might have expected to his loaded question, the Coulsdon Conservative came forward with the supplementary, as he is allowed, and asked why, therefore, has Newman been less than open and transparent with the people of Croydon over the by-election-prompting resignation of Councillor Sirisena?
Newman’s response was to bluster and waffle, before uttering that, “It is currently under investigation by the police”, and then, in the spirit of the kind of openness and transparency Croydon has come to expect from Newman, he offered Creatura a private briefing outside the meeting.
This was just part of a generally poor performance from Newman. Maybe he is out of practice – this, after all, was the first full council meeting since July. But he went through the meeting managing to argue with his chief executive over the correct interpretation of pre-election purdah, spluttering and waffling his way through a sequence of non-answers, all the while puffing himself up, apparently affronted that anyone should dare ask anything about the conduct of his council.
At one point last night, as the Mayor, Humayun Kabir, struggled through rude interruptions to read out a lengthy list of short-comings with the refurbished Fairfield Halls in a written letter from a resident, Newman resorted into heckling, “Sounds like they’ve been reading Inside Croydon!” It was a remark which drew as many laughs from the opposition as it did from his own councillors.
It had the look of a council leader under increasing pressure from his own record: the £11million overspend on an unfinished and incomplete Fairfield Halls, allegations of bullying surrounding some of his key appointees, not a single council house built in nearly six years, children’s services still in special measures more than two years after failing an Ofsted inspection, his leadership under attack from a campaign to introduce a directly elected mayor, and now Newman has been forced into admitting in public that one of his own over-promoted councillors is entangled in a police investigation.
Could things be about to get worse for Newman and his struggling council? “Probably,” according to a couple of Katharine Street sources. The by-election is on November 7.
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