Council Leader To Be Investigated Over Council Tax Letter

Standards Committee votes for formal probe into controversial consultation

Merton Council leader Stephen Alambritis is to be investigated over the recent consultation over a potential council tax increase.

The Labour councillor has been criticised by some people in his own party, as well as other parties, for a letter that was sent to people living in St Helier.

It was posted to residents in that ward when the council was carrying out its formal consultation into using the precept allowed by the Government for it to raise £1.7m through to spend on adult social care in 2017-19.

But the Council's Standards and General Purposes committee heard on Tuesday (December 13) that the letter - addressed from "Your St Helier Labour Councillors " - included a Freepost envelope to return a response to Merton Council. The letter was signed by Councillor Alambritis and three other Labour Councillors.

Those responses were not included in the council's official consultation, but the use of the Freepost cost it £1,117.

Mitcham and Mordern Labour party have since paid the council back and apologised for what happened. But the council's Monitoring Officer Paul Evans and its 'Independent Person', Derek Prior, recommended Councillor Alambritis should be investigated.

The recommendation read: “We consider the complaints merit formal investigation for the following reasons:

"1. The 'consultation' exercise carried out by the Leader did not present a clear picture to the public that the exercise was a party political exercise and as a result, can be considered to have diminished public confidence in the Council’s own consultation process and the Council to carry on business.

"2. The use of Council resources through a pre-paid business reply service addressed to the Council’s Communications team by the Leader and political party will cost the Council in excess of £1000. This is not withstanding that an apology has been provided and a commitment to reimburse the Council made.

"3. The data management issues created by the collection of personal data and delivery to the Council and the impact this could have on public confidence in the Council."

Their report said that seven members of the public made a formal complaint about the letter, which was branded with a Labour Party logo.

It also stated that Councillor Alambritis said Councillors were entitled to have a say and to get their message across. It was an oversight that the reply paid slip had been used and this had been addressed with an apology and an offer to reimburse the Council, he was said to have commented. He also said the letter was his responsibility.

The committee decided to investigate after the motion was passed by seven votes to five.

Councillor David Williams, Conservative Finance Spokesman, said afterwards: "Now it has been agreed that he has a case to answer, Councillor Alambritis should clearly step aside as Leader of the Council while the formal investigation is on-going.

"It is crucial to avoid any perception among residents that the investigation is not free, fair and objective. After the Cabinet bottled out of considering the results of the council tax consultation on Monday, for him to remain as Leader just risks bringing the council into further disrepute.

"Given the serious nature of the allegations, the council also needs to confirm whether Councillor Alambritis' admitted misuse of council resources could lead to investigation by the police."

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December 15, 2016

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Stephen Alambritis