'I need to stay politically neutral', says Croydon Council chief executive after fiery community meeting
HE EARNS nearly £200k from the public purse each year and heads up YOUR council - yet Jon Rouse wasn't happy to answer key questions about the future of West Croydon in front of the media this week. With this in mind, the Advertiser today asks our chief executive... WHAT HAVE YOU GOT TO HIDE?
"IT'S going to be a very, very different meeting if the press are here because I'm going to give very factual and very closed answers."
This is what Croydon Council's chief executive Jon Rouse said, prior to the Advertiser and other local media being excluded from the West Croydon Community Forum meeting last week.
Chief reporter Ross Lidbetter led the efforts to fight Mr Rouse's undemocratic stance. Here are extracts of his transcript from last Thursday's meeting...
CROYDON Council chief executive Jon Rouse (JR) says his expectation was to have a meeting with the WCCF and feels uncomfortable that the press are present.
Bushra Ahmed (BA), who formed the WCCF, said: "Were you not aware that it was going to be an open meeting?
JR (looks at other council officers): "Well I don't know if anybody else... they're all shaking their heads."
BA: "Well, I apologise for that."
JR: "It's just not appropriate for an officer to be placed in this position.
"If you want to have an open forum with the politicians, fair enough, that's what they're elected to do.
"In terms of me being accountable then we have scrutiny committees to do that and I'm called to appear before scrutiny committees, as are my officers."
A member of the audience then asks the press if they would leave.
BA: "It was an open meeting and we have asked people who have now come. If we follow the questions, is there anything on there...
JR: "The point I would make is it's going to be a very, very different meeting if the press are here because I'm going to give very factual and very closed answers.
"It isn't my job, or my officers', to place ourselves in a position which is rightly the position of the democratically elected politicians. We will have a meeting, but it is going to be quite stilted."
Mr Rouse is asked if the pre-prepared questions are OK and he says they are fine.
But when asked to press on with the answers he replies he will do so "up to a point".
Andrew Pelling, blogger and former Croydon Central MP: "Surely it's better for the community if the press are not here, in terms of communicating and trying to move things forward.
"I speak on behalf of my organisation and not the other two. It does strike me, I am an ex-politician, that I know sometimes officials are neutral, they're not politicians and maybe they want to share things with you that would be difficult to share openly at this stage."
Clive Locke, chairman of the WCCF: "Can I please ask the press to retire then please?"
One audience member says it would be "very rude" to ask the press to leave.
JR: "There are two types of meeting here, if you want to have an open forum and you have an open debate with the press present then that is the role of the politically elected members and that's why in the Croydon Advertiser you see the elected members regularly quoted."
BA: "I think that's probably on our part that we didn't make it clear to yourselves that we were having an open meeting and that means anybody was invited."
Ross Lidbetter, Croydon Advertiser reporter: "We've come here to write a story to present it to the community.
"If as a community, the community wants us to leave then I will accept that.
"But my role was to come here tonight to write a story to present to the West Croydon community about what is going on within the area. I don't think the questions are that controversial, but I will have to accept the decision."
Audience member calls for a vote, and it is decided six to four in favour of the press leaving, with some not casting a vote. Jon Rouse sent this response the Advertiser on Tuesday...
"FOLLOWING reports about my attitude to being scrutinised by the media at the West Croydon Community Forum meeting last week, I would like to take this opportunity to say that I value and expect press scrutiny of my actions in administrating council services.
Where I seek to draw the line, though, is in not getting involved in public debate about council policy, which is more properly a matter for cabinet members. That is because I am not an elected politician and I need to be politically neutral at all times. This is crucial to my role as the most senior public servant on the council and, indeed, as acting returning officer for the borough. During my time at Croydon, I have always been prepared to give account for the matters for which I am responsible. I would also like to make clear that it was the forum's community representatives who made the decision to exclude the press. I would have abided by their decision either way."
Mr Rouse – who earned a basic salary of £179,529 in the last financial year – had been invited to talk about a host of topics affecting the area, including a lack of parking and the progress on getting a police shop-front established on the London Road.
Describing what happened after the press left, Bushra Ahmed, who formed the WCCF, explained it was a 'short meeting'.
She told the Advertiser: "In the time we had left we went through those questions.
"There was nothing major that came out of it that we didn’t already know.
"We were just talking in general, about things like parking. It was very general."
One audience member had walked out in disgust when the press were asked to leave, labelling the situation as 'out of order'.
Speaking the following day, Nitin Mehta, who runs a business along the London Road, said: "I really felt bad that somebody who is there is then asked to leave without any genuine reason. I thought that it was out of order.
"I had to show my support and walk out. I cannot understand the logic behind it.
"I could understand if it was a really difficult or controversial subject we were going to talk about.
"But it was just a small meeting talking about how we’re going forward and making things better.
"It was nothing top secret that the press shouldn’t be there."
Mr Mehta admitted he was disappointed with the show of hands asking for the press to leave.
He added: "It all happened so quickly, I don’t think a lot of people were able to give much thought about it."
Broad Green ward councillor Stuart Collins, who attended the meeting, was also unimpressed by the chief executive’s stance.
He said: "It’s not a great call on his part and he probably misjudged the mood of the meeting and the questions that might have been asked.
"I just think if you’re a chief executive of a council you should be able to deal with these sorts of questions."
Although banned from the meeting, the council press office did end up providing the Advertiser with information about West Croydon – six days later.
Among the answers, it explained there are no plans for a public car park on the London Road.
A statement read: "One of West Croydon’s great strengths is its public transport accessibility.
"The council is building on these strengths through the Connected Croydon programme to enhance walking routes to, from and within the Croydon town centre and its public transport hubs.
"Future developments in and around the London Road area – including potential residential schemes and any new school proposals – will each be subject to planning applications and will be required to meet the parking and transport policies and standards set out in the London Plan and Croydon’s planning framework."
In reference to getting a police shop-front on the London Road, the council said: "Police are about to consult on the Public Access Strategy which will have a range of options to cover how, where and in which way the public can communicate and meet with the police.
"At its heart is the need to increase police officer visibility.
"Proposals could include options to ensure a police officer presence at various locations in the borough, including London Road, eg at the CVA."
The council also gives an indication of what the London Road traders should be doing to improve their relationship with the local authority.
The council spokesman added: "We suggest that businesses become members of the London Road Traders’ Association and work collaboratively."