A defiant Dan Norris has hit back at a finding that he ordered the “unlawful” spending of £10,000 of taxpayers’ money to plaster a bus with three huge photos of himself and his dog.
He insists metro mayors are “meant to be visible”.
As reported, an emergency meeting of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA), which he heads, has been called for Friday, 1st December.
But Labour mayor Mr Norris will be required to leave the room and declare a non-pecuniary interest while the leaders of Bristol, South Gloucestershire and Bath & North East Somerset councils debate and vote on whether they agree with WECA’s monitoring officer that the expenditure amounted to unlawful, political self-promotion.
A report to the committee said Mr Norris issued a “direct instruction” to staff in the mayoral office to spend the government money on the bus wrap to promote his Birthday Bus scheme, where residents can travel for free during the month of their birthday.
But it said interim chief executive Richard Ennis pulled the bus from public view when he found out about it and raised concerns.
The report said the wrap featured three pictures of the mayor, one measuring 3m high and the other two 2m and 1m, and two images of his dog Angel, along with the messages “Free Bus Travel In Your Birthday Month” on one side and “Be A Community Hero. Become A Bus Driver” on the other.
It said the double-decker was intended to be used at the Birthday Bus launch event in May and that there was evidence it was also supposed to enter and remain in service for at least a year.
The report said an external review found officers under instruction from Mr Norris “did not consider the need to check or discuss this with anyone within the combined authority, nor did they consider the need to follow the combined authority’s expected control processes”.
It said they raised a purchase order “in breach of the requirement in the combined authority’s constitution to either obtain three quotes or to obtain a waiver of the requirement to obtain three quotes”.
“The bus wrap is reminiscent of political campaign buses which exist to serve the explicit purpose of seeking to influence voters,” the report said.
In response, Mr Norris said: “I was not interviewed by the individual undertaking the internal review over the summer and this autumn, nor was I afforded the opportunity to comment on the final report which has just been made public.
“The report outlines important operational changes at the West of England Combined Authority that have already been put in place and others that need to be completed by the spring. I welcome these actions.
“The monitoring officer has challenged the use of my image on the bus wrap.
“However the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity states: ‘It is acceptable for local authorities to publicise the work done by individual members of the authority, and to present the views of those individuals on local issues. This might be appropriate, for example, when one councillor has been the “face” of a particular campaign’.”
He added: “When Labour first introduced directly elected mayors, the whole point was to have a face that the public could identify as being responsible and accountable for the policies that were being promoted and introduced.
“The bus with advertising would have cost £27 to £40 per day over a year period to travel across our region promoting two key messages – that there is a need for more bus drivers to tackle the severe regional shortage and that all West of England residents are entitled to a month’s free travel through the Birthday Bus scheme.
“I remain steadfast in my view that mayors are meant to be visible and this was stated in my election manifesto on which I won.”
Bristol City Council opposition Conservative group leader Cllr Mark Weston said: “In the summer, I expressed some of my concerns over the Birthday Bus Scheme, and how this sailed close to the wind in terms of it being akin to potential electioneering bribery – legally known as ‘treating’.
“Whilst the vehicle daubed in Dan and his dog’s imagery was not in fact used as part of the accompanying promotional campaign, the £10,000 wasted on this stunt is an absolute disgrace.
“This money should have been spent on supporting ailing bus services.
“At the very least, one hopes that the metro mayor – or his party – might consider doing the right thing here and reimbursing these unlawful costs.
“Such remedial action would help to demonstrate acceptance that this was improper spending and should not have come out of the public purse.”
Bristol Tory Cllr Steve Smith, who previously sat on the WECA overview & scrutiny committee, said: “Last December, I tackled Mr Norris directly about the content of other combined authority literature which had been circulated and carried the same pictures of him and his dog.
“I said then that this appeared to be political advertising paid for from the public purse.
“In reply, he simply dismissed my concerns by feigning incredulity.
“Well, his chickens have come home to roost now and this matter is being treated very seriously indeed.”
South Gloucestershire Council Conservative group leader Cllr Sam Bromiley said: “The facts are incredible – the Weca mayor unlawfully spent £10,000 of public money on a vanity project to promote him and his dog, while at the same time cutting vital bus services for vulnerable residents.
“Since day one, it has been clear to everybody that the multi-million pound Birthday Bus scheme was nothing more than a shameless act of self-promotion by a metro mayor who is out of touch and out of ideas.
“The Weca mayor must now make a full and frank public apology before local residents kick him off at the next stop.”
Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporter