The actions of Merton Council’s leader have been likened to that of a “bank robber” and he will be formally investigated for his role in a separate consultation into council tax charges. 

It comes after heated standards meeting on Tuesday, December 13, where his supporters labelled the process a “witch hunt” against the Labour councillor.

The standards and general purposes committee voted to investigate Councillor Alambritis after seven formal complaints were received about his conduct, including a complaint from one of his own party’s councillors.

Dec 6: Leader of Merton Council Stephen Alambritis may face two formal investigations after 'serious' complaints about council tax consultation

Cllr Alambritis has faced serious criticism for sending a Labour-backed letter and questionnaire to residents in St Helier encouraging them to vote against raising council tax, at the same time as the council was conducting its own official survey into taxation levels following increased pressure to raise rates by two per cent to fund adult social care.

The letter, headed ‘Urgent: Consultation on Council Tax increases – please read now!’ and the questionnaire, described as an ‘important consultation’ and headed ‘URGENT: Have Your Say – Council Tax’, were posted to residents along with a freepost envelope to return the completed forms to the consultation team at Merton Council.

Wimbledon Times:

The letter from the Mitcham and Morden Labour party

Wimbledon Times:

Unlike the official consultation, the Labour correspondence – which was also signed by St Helier Councillors Jerome Neil, Dennis Pearce and Imran Uddin – made no mention of adult social care and told all respondents to include their full name and address in order to be counted.

Merton Council has confirmed that all 2,942 responses to the Labour consultation were returned to the  party and not counted in the official feedback. The use of the freepost cost the council £1,380, which the Mitcham and Morden Labour Party has since reimbursed and apologised for.

The Wimbledon Labour Party sent out a seperate leaflet to residents urging them to vote to to raise council tax by the maximum 3.99 per cent.

Monitoring officer Paul Evans, who had recommended Cllr Alambritis be investigated, said that while there was no problem with councillors expressing political views during a consultation period, it had not been made clear enough that the Labour backed letter was separate to the official consultation, a council freepost address should not be used for non-council business, and raised concerns about data protection issues.

The council’s independent person, Derek Prior, said he had received one of the Labour letters at his home and had found it very hard to believe it wasn’t a formal council consultation.

Mr Prior said: “The question that was in my mind is, why has this come about? What is the value of having a separate exercise? What was in the background? What was in Stephen Alambritis’ mind?”

The chairman of the standards committee, Labour’s Councillor Peter McCabe, had to constantly remind his colleagues the committee should be a-political, as opposing councillors butted heads throughout the evening.

Labour’s cabinet member for regeneration, environment and housing, Councillor Martin Whelton, said he could not “see the point” in a formal investigation, and added: “I feel this is a witch hunt against the leader of the Council.”

However, Cllr McCabe said: “A witch hunt might be one view, but the public perception may be that the council is wishing to brush this under the carpet.”

Wimbledon Times:

Labour’s Councillor Mike Brunt also argued forcibly for his leader, insisting that as the money had been repaid to the council and an apology made, the use of the freepost should no longer be seen as grounds to investigate Cllr Alambritis.

From yesterday: NHS holding Merton Council 'to ransom' in dispute about raising council tax to fund adult social care

But Conservative Councillor Michael Bull compared the leader’s actions to that of a bank robber, by saying that a crook who was caught, apologised and paid back the money would not be let off.

Labour’s Councillor Ian Munn added: “I think we have no option but to support the officer’s recommendation to find out whether there’s weight behind the complaints.

“If we were to rail road this we would be, in my opinion, in breach of our own code of conduct.

“Putting aside any political concerns, I think the officer’s recommendation is appropriate.”

The decision to formally investigate  was passed by seven votes to five, with both Cllr McCabe and Cllr Munn voting in favour of investigating their leader. The investigation, which is estimated to cost between £5,000 and £10,000, is expected to take three months.

Labour’s Councillor Jeff Hanna, who has lodged formal complaints about Cllr Alambritis with both Merton Council and the Information Commissioner’s Office, praised the committee’s decision today, December 14, and said: “Residents need to have confidence in the council’s consultation procedures, and need to know that views they send to the council will never again be handed over, with their names and addresses, to any political party.

“Personally, my real concern is that the covering letter said nothing about adult social care, and the needs of the elderly, the infirm and those with disabilities.

Nov 22: Merton residents vote to raise council tax to protect adult social care services

“The deputy leader [cabinet member for finance, Councillor Mark Allison] has finally accepted that we need to review the council tax freeze policy. Adult social care is overspending by millions. We need to address that, which means unpleasant cuts elsewhere or minimising these by raising council tax.

“People matter more than rigid policies.”

Also speaking today, Cllr Alambritis said: This is a politically vexatious complaint.

“I’m a listening leader. I want to listen. I want to liaise regularly with residents. It’s ironic that I’m being complained about for wanting to keep to my pledges and for liaising with and contacting residents.

“It is no surprise to me that our political opponents don’t want to hear the views of the residents in Mitcham and Morden on key issues that matter to everyone in the borough.”

He added: “We are an open council . If it’s the decision of the committee to further investigate, that’s fine. But it’s a politically vexatious complaint. “

However, Conservative finance spokesman, Councillor David Williams, has called on Cllr Alambritis to temporarily step down as leader. 

He said: "Now it has been agreed that he has a case to answer, Cllr 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 Cllr Alambritis’ admitted misuse of council resources could lead to investigation by the police.”

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