Walsall Council: Mayor's controversial casting vote puts Tories on brink of control
The Tories are set to take control of Walsall Council tomorrow after the mayor controversially voted himself in to serve a second term.
It is the first time a Walsall Council mayor has served two consecutive terms since the Second World War.
Last night Councillor Marco Longhi used his casting vote to continue as mayor for 2018/19, which will ensure the balance of power is tipped in the direction of the Conservative Party.
As the mayor was sworn in in front of a full council chamber, the Labour group chose not to stand and Councillor Longhi described the evening as 'depressing'.
Following the elections at the beginning of this month, the Conservatives came within one seat of winning overall control of the council after gaining five seats for a total of 30.
But Labour, who finished on 26 seats, teamed up with former Labour turned independent councillors Paul Bott and Chris Bott, as well as Lib Dems Ian Shires and Dan Barker.
This means the council chamber is split 30-30 with casting votes falling on Councillor Longhi, who was first elected mayor this time last year.
Ordinarily mayors serve only a one-year term, with their replacements chosen from the longest-serving councillors who are yet to serve as mayor.
It is not uncommon for mayors to use their casting vote to favour their political party. Prior to Councillor Longhi's election as mayor, Labour relied on the casting vote of then-mayor Councillor Kath Phillips.
Independent Councillor Paul Bott, who planned to form a coalition with Labour and the Lib Dems, was expected to be inducted as the new mayor, meaning he could have used his casting vote to ensure the Labour group remained in control.
But a motion was put forward by Tory leader Mike Bird to block the process and to ensure his party took control – in a move he claimed had not happened since the Second World War.
The support for Councillor Bott and Councillor Longhi was split – with the latter using the mayor's casting vote to back himself.
Now, Councillor Longhi will use his casting vote at the AGM on Wednesday evening with the Conservatives expected to take control.
He said: "I regret the fact I have been put in a position where which ever way I vote I will upset half the chamber.
"Over the past two weeks, each councillor has had the opportunity to ensure that the scenario of the casting vote is not used, and I'd hoped you'd been able to work something out.
"As a democrat and because of the election results, it shows that Walsall people want a change.
"Those who seek to question my integrity choose to ignore my conduct over the last 365 days and my behaviour over the last 20 years as a councillor.
"We will be mayor and mayoress and we will be so, for all people, communities, faiths and political views, just as we have been in the previous year, without prejudice."
'Hero to zero'
Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Councillor Ian Shires, said Councillor Longhi had gone from 'hero to zero' following the decision while Labour leader Sean Coughlan slammed the move.
Councillor Coughlan added: "I can tell you how disappointed I am in Marco. Of course, losing control of the council is disappointing.
"But 30 councillors recognise the work we have done to re-stabilise the finances, we've set a four-year budget, invested in district centres and much much more.
"To see someone I trusted throw away integrity, dignity and respect – this is not a one off. Marco Longhi's actions need to be recognised and this will happen again.
"If the votes are close again next year that'll be another councillor on this side of the chamber that won't become mayor. I can tell you now we can play the same games going forward.
"Councillor Bott had to tell 68 family and friends not to come – he felt so hurt for them and didn't ask them to be here.
"It is a sad day. I understand the pressures and I'm sad for Marco but I'm sadder for Walsall."
Councillor Bird said: "There have been those who said the Conservative vote in the election went down, which is not true.
"There is evidence that shows there was a 25 per cent increase in the vote for the party, with more than 5,000 extra votes.
"I came from under pressure from my group to answer criticism and had a group meeting booked for Friday of last week, which was brought forward to Wednesday due to the tensions.
"It is a fact that we would have supported Paul Bott as the Mayor. We find ourselves in this situation where the group wanted to do something about the criticism it was receiving."
Councillor Bott was sworn in as the deputy mayor for Walsall after being put forward by Councillor Coughlan.
The vast majority of the Conservative councillors chose to abstain from supporting him.
Councillor Paul Bott, who was asked to remain quiet following several outbursts as Councillor Mike Bird spoke, added: "I had the courtesy to meet with councillors Coughlan and Shires – we wanted to support the coalition because the support they have given to local and deprived areas."