SOUTH Tyneside's most senior election official has publicly apologised for last year's ballot box blunder, saying: "I am sorry this was a serious mistake."
In a statement released to the Gazette, South Tyneside's returning officer Brian T Scott apologised for the loss of 18 ballot boxes containing every rejected postal vote in the borough.
But he denied any fraud or wrongdoing, and said the loss of the votes – which had been counted up until election night – had not affected the result for Beacon and Bents ward.
And after his legal battle with defeated Independent candidate Ahmed Khan, a full transcript of the judge's ruling in dismissing the case has been released for the public to read.
Mr Scott, the council's head of corporate governance, also pledged tight security at this year's ballot, urging voters to have full confidence in the democratic process and to turn out in force for May's election.
He said: "Every ballot paper that ought to have been counted, was counted. It did not affect the result."
And in an unprecedented move, he published previously unseen court papers on our website - www.shieldsgazette.com.
Click here to read the full transcript of the missing ballot boxes row court case
He said: "So that there can be no doubt, I have obtained a copy of the approved judgment of the
court and a copy of the certified transcript of the proceedings before the court.
"I have placed these on the council's website so that voters can see for themselves what was said to the judge and read his judgment.
"I have investigated what happened and I have no reason to believe that it was anything other than an unfortunate mistake.
"I have seen no evidence to suggest that something untoward or fradulent took place. But it did not affect the election result, because those postal ballot packs were properly rejected.
On the missing ballot boxes, he said: "The buck stops with me. I am sorry that it occurred. This was a serious mistake. The loss should not have happened. It is my responsibility and I accept that."
He added: "Election staff are working hard to prepare for this year's elections and security precautions are a top priority for us."
The row was sparked in May last year when Ahmed Khan lost to Coun Audrey McMillan by 33 votes in the Beacon and Bents ward.
Mr Khan thought the high number of rejected postal votes was suspicious, and launched a legal challenge to inspect the ballot papers to see why they'd been rejected.
After a court battle, it emerged the postal votes Mr Khan wanted to see weren't available, and the council said they had been mislaid and subsequently lost.
A county court judge dismissed Mr Khan's application and ordered him to pay 30,000 legal costs to Mr Scott.
Today, businessman Mr Khan, who this month sent out 40,000 leaflets based on his claims about the ballot boxes, said: "Mr Scott's apology is accepted on behalf of every voter. It's just a shame it has taken nearly a year, legal action, thousands of pounds, and a borough-wide election leaflet to achieve it.
"Mr Scott should resign as Returning Officer immediately in order to restore public confidence in the electoral process. By his own admission, the buck stops with him."
Coun Jane Branley, leader of the Independent Alliance, said: "Let's face it – if Mr Khan had not taken legal action, the people of this borough would have never known that more than 1,000 votes went uncounted.
"Mr Khan now faces a hefty legal bill for taking the action he did. This could have been avoided if Mr Scott had made the facts public in May 2007. Surely, this latest statement is Brian T Scott admitting negligence."
A police investigation into the missing ballot papers is still ongoing.
Click here to read the court's judgement in the missing ballot boxes row