Did the people signing Monika Juneja’s petition know what they were doing?

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Letter: ‘Did Those Who Signed Juneja Petition Know What They Were Doing? Their Signatures May Bind Guildford For Next 10 Years’

From Cllr Susan Parker (Send Ward),  leader of the Guildford Greenbelt Group and a director of Local Democracy Ltd.

Adan Scotney’s reply to The Guildford Dragon NEWS’ story ‘Elected Mayor’ Petition Sent To Borough Council From Former Councillor Juneja, concerning  an elected mayor is extremely important.

He states “I was accosted by somebody on North Street a couple of weeks ago asking me to sign a petition calling for a directly elected mayor in Guildford. When I said I didn’t care that we don’t directly elect the mayor I was told I should sign the petition anyway.. (“by signing the petition you’re not saying you’re in favour of an elected mayor, just that the issue should be looked at”)”.

But in fact this petition is a constitutional disaster for Guildford. Strong words? No.

Cllr Susan Parker.

Cllr Susan Parker.

If the petition for an elected mayor is approved as valid, the legal team at Guildford Borough Council has now suggested (provisionally) that one single individual will be able to decide the future for the borough, and the system can’t be changed for 10 years.

That individual could be titled as mayor or council leader depending on a referendum in the autumn. Either way, power will be concentrated in the hands of one individual.

The decision about how we are to be governed will be made by June 17, irrespective of how anyone votes in that referendum or any subsequent election.

The legal team has also suggested we shouldn’t review this system for 10 years, or reconsider the decision. The decision about this is, at present, being made by Satish Mistry, monitoring officer of Guildford Borough Council, without consideration by councillors, even though the constitutional changes are profound.

How does this arise?

If this petition is validated there will be a referendum. However, in a committee meeting last week councillors were told that there will only be two alternatives offered to the people of Guildford:

1. A “strong leader” in charge of the Executive ( the current system). The leader (currently Cllr Stephen Mansbridge) has been appointed for four years, unless removed by Council. He has personally chosen the members of the Executive and can remove them. Most decisions made by the Executive in accordance with policy do not need to be approved by full council but can be decided by a quorum of three, effectively giving the leader personal control of the council.

2. An elected mayor, with wide-ranging powers similar to the powers of the current “strong leader”. Decisions will not be subject to formal consultation and will not be considered by councillors. The mayor cannot be removed during the term of office.

Stephen Mansbridge

The leader of Guildford Borough Council, Stephen Mansbridge.

Practically speaking, there is little to choose between the two, except that the mayor cannot be removed. The leader of our council, Cllr Mansbridge, who is a former business partner of Ms Juneja who sponsored the petition, already has wide powers. He only needs two other Executive members (appointed by him) to ratify his decisions. He doesn’t need to consult with the council on most matters. So why bother with a petition?

The Guildford Greenbelt Group’s preferred alternative is the committee system where all councillors have a voice and a vote. But we have been told this is unlikely to be an option in the referendum. I have asked that legal advice is sought about this, and that the terms of reference for that advice are made public. The alternative petition from Local Democracy Ltd is still seeking signatures – our petition can be seen on our website.

Councillors have been told the referendum will prevent any possible subsequent change, or any subsequent petitions being considered, and Guildford will be committed to the choice made (as set out in the first petition) for the next 10 years.

The mayoral petition might be illegal or invalid. (It is not legal to harass voters outside polling stations or pay for campaigning and political campaigning is not permitted on election day. Councillors are politically affiliated and Ms Juneja was a councillor until May 11, 2015). I have asked formally that the petition’s legality be considered. I have also suggested that such a major constitutional dilemma should be considered by all councillors, not just decided by an unelected monitoring officer.

If this dubious petition goes forward, Guildford will have one leader. That leader will make unilateral decisions on behalf of all of us. None of us (including councillors) will have any ability to influence the future.

The people who signed this petition may not – according to Adan Scotney – have realised the consequences. This petition is a cynical way of committing us all to a system that no one signing had appreciated at the time.

Most of us thought we were engaged on May 7 in a local election to determine the future of the council and the borough – but we were wrong. GGG had more than 20 000 votes, but the only votes that mattered were 5,012 signatures on that petition, sponsored by Monika Juneja.

The monitoring officer expects to approve that petition on June 17 which will bind us all. I would question whether he has the power to make that constitutional decision on his own. Be aware, that unless that petition is overturned before it is validated –or unless there is a three-way choice – then those 5,012 signatures will bind Guildford for the next 10 years.

Can we stop this at this stage? Yes. It’s not inevitable.

First, you can download and sign the Local Democracy petition for a committee system so it has 5,012 signatures too – and so that it can be submitted fast. Then you can write to your councillor and your MP to demand that they require a three–way alternative. We must have a real democratic choice.

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