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A councillor has been criticised for over-spending her council-funded postage limit to send out communications for what opposition political groups claim are “personal, political and self-promotional purposes”.
Chaddesden Labour councillor Sara Bolton has come under fire from Conservative councillor Jonathan Smale, who said she ignored the “strict limitations on the cost of printing and postage" that are allowed by Derby City Council.
The Labour group's overall spend on postage and printing from April 2016 to March 2017 was £2,963.28 – with Ms Bolton spending almost a third of that herself mainly on ward reports to Chaddesden residents.
In the same period, the Conservatives spent £122.40, UKIP £36.48 and Liberal Democrats nothing.
Official figures show that Ms Bolton used the council’s postal system to send out 2,230 ward reports, at a cost of £1,070 – almost three times the annual postage allowance of £350 per councillor.
Mr Smale said: “The financial restrictions are, in part, designed to stop any abuse of the system. Strict rules are in place that do not allow council communication to be for personal, political and self-promotional purposes.
“I know that, like me, Derby's Conservative councillors regularly communicate information and messages directly to residents via social media and all manner of other ways. The costs for this are met by ourselves. We certainly do not abuse council resources to do it."
But Ms Bolton defended her position and said she has been using email more and hand-delivering the reports for the past couple of months since she was made aware by council officials that she had overspent her budget.
She said: “It is very important I communicate with my constituents by various means and I believe I am the only councillor to send out a ward report, which I have been doing for years.
“When I was told I had overspent the budget, I made changes but many of my constituents are not on email and don’t use social media.
“I can use the printing at the Council House and I will continue to do that – I have done nothing wrong and am just being conscientious.”
Opposition groups lined up to condemn the Labour group’s use of the postage and printing budget, which also included 454 ward welcome letters – sent to newcomers to the electoral register in Chaddesden – at a cost of £217.92. In total, 1,905 welcome letters were sent out in Abbey, Alvaston, Boulton and Chaddesden, at a cost of £914.40.
The postage expense figures also show that in four predominantly Labour wards – Alvaston, Mackworth, Boulton and Derwent – 10,620 letters were sent out, at a cost of £637.20, giving people notice of when their councillors would be “on patrol”, known as COPS.
This initiative involves residents, councillors, Streetpride, Derby Homes and the police, knocking on door and talking and meeting with people.
Other rules governing postage include: no mail-out should exceed 50 items if using postage; hand-delivered mail has no limit providing the councillor’s spending limit has not been exceeded and councillors are allowed to pool their £350 postage allowance between themselves within the same ward.
Matthew Holmes, leader of the council’s minority Conservative group, said that he was “extremely concerned” about the level of spending on local correspondence by the Labour administration and “its motivation for doing so”
“The excuse that they are communicating with their constituents does not wash because that can be done without using and abusing council resources funding by the local tax payer.
“They have also spent large sums on advertising 'councillor walkabouts' which are very labour intensive for council neighbourhood officers and which are targeted to Labour-held wards, whilst being removed from many areas with opposition councillors in place.”
Mr Holmes added that councillors should always be held to account over their expenditure by other councillors and the public.
UKIP councillor Alan Graves, who represents Alvaston, said he had tried to raise the issue for the past five years.
He said: "I have made three complaints over the years about differing activity that was, as I saw it, misuse of council funds in this area
"All three were rejected by the council's standards committee and I was accused of wasting council time.
"The Labour party has for many years stretched the boundaries of what is reasonable contact with residents and what is electioneering."
Mr Graves added that he was aware of a COPS, where residents were out and a card put through the door. He said: "This was followed up with a letter saying they were out but if they needed to contact the chair of the neighbourhood board here were the details. COPS letter were printed by the council, letters were hand-delivered by council staff and follow up-letters were sent out.
"This is a waste of council tax money, council officer time and, in my view, unethical and immoral.
"There is also a correlation between marginal seats for the Labour party and where the money is spent."
Liberal Democrat leader Ruth Skelton said that there is always a "very fine line between promoting and publicising what you do as a councillor and what you do as a member of a political party".
She said: "The public tends to view this sort of spending as political use of taxpayers’ money. Liberal Democrats do regular newsletters to our constituents, but this is paid for by the Liberal Democrats through fund-raising.
"There are genuine cases when a councillor needs to write a letter to a constituent. This is what this budget should be used for. But it sounds to me like the system is being abused by Labour. Labour are always saying the council is strapped for cash. But they seem quite happy to spend public money like it was water."