Tory mayor's vote hands power to own party as council tie sparks anger; Labour uproar as control snatched away by Conservative ploy.
THE Mayor of Walsall has used his own casting vote to re-elect himself in a controversial move that saw the Conservative group grab control of the council from an impending Labour coalition.
In a series of events seldom seen, the election of deputy mayor Paul Bott - who would normally have been approved by the council as the new mayor - was blocked by the Tories.
Cllr Bott, who would have been mayor, previously said in a radio interview he would side with a Labour coalition, giving them control of the council.
The Conservatives became the largest party after the local elections with 30 councillors out of 60, within one seat of winning overall control.
But Labour, who finished on 26 seats, hooked up with former Labour turned independent councillors Paul Bott and Chris Bott, as well as Lib Dems Ian Shires and Dan Barker.
It meant the council chamber was split 30-30 - with the casting vote falling on current mayor Marco Longhi who was first elected mayor.
But this week Conservative group leader Mike Bird instead proposed mayor Cllr Longhi stay in post for the coming next year. Since Cllr Longhi was still mayor and had the deciding vote, it fell to him to break the deadlock... by casting a vote for himself and handing control of the council to the Tories.
Cllr Longhi told the chamber: "I very much regret the fact that I've been put in a position where, whichever way I vote, I will be disappointing half the chamber.
"Over the past two weeks each councillor has had the opportunity to ensure that the scenario of the deciding vote was not needed."
Referring to his own election as mayor last year, which relied on the votes of opposition councillors, he added: "I would now appeal to every single councillor here to ask themselves this.
"Would you really have supported me as your mayor if you knew, the week before the vote, you had heard me on the radio, attacking the Labour group, and confirming that I would have supported a Conservative administration? "Because that is what you're asking me to do, as well as vote against my group."
Cries of objection echoed through the chamber as Councillor Bird outlined the reasons for his group's decision not to follow protocol, explaining that he did not feel Cllr Bott would remain politically neutral as is customary in the chamber.
He also swore by testimony that he had tried to contact Cllr Bott several times following the election to discuss the arrangements with him, only to hear him criticising the Conservative party in an interview. Cllr Bird added that he would resign from the council if he were found to be lying.
The vote means that, with overall control of the council, Cllr Bird will become the council's new leader.
He will also take a seat on the board of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), where he will take over the portfolio for housing and land from former Walsall Council leader Sean Coughlan.
The Labour coalition reacted angrily to the stand-off as it unfolded, with group leader Sean Coughlan describing it as "a sad night for democracy in this chamber".
Cllr Shires (Lib Dem) went one step further, saying of Mayor Longhi: "Hero to zero doesn't even come close to describing the depths to which I feel you've gone, in allowing yourself to be used in this way.
"And with due respect, Mr Mayor, what's the old saying about power and corruption?" Cllr Bott sat stony-faced as he watched events unfold, frequently interrupting during the Conservative councillors' testimonies.
He insisted he was being persecuted for telling the truth about his political beliefs: "Let me tell Councillor Bird some facts," he said.
"Three weeks before the election I said that I would not be supporting Mike Bird. We gave our support to Labour and the Liberals because they look after working class and deprived areas.
"That's why we were supporting the coalition."
Hero to zero doesn't even come close to describing the depths to which I feel you've goneCllr Shires (Lib Dem)
<B Walsall mayor Marco Longhi