‘Brutish, bullying and intimidating’ is how borough councillor John Rankin has described attacks made on him at a council meeting on Wednesday night while his group leader says it felt like ‘institutional bullying’.
Mr Rankin has written to the council’s senior management and senior elected councillors telling them he is reserving the right to seek legal advice on what he describes as, “this unfortunate incident.”
Mr Rankin, the Conservative member for the Conquest ward had explained to members of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) that he was not in favour of proposals to extend use of virtual meetings saying he believed it did not serve democracy.
Mr Rankin had told councillors he believed there was a need for face to face meetings and for councillors to be able to speak to each other informally before and after meetings and that wasn’t happening while councillors logged in to virtual meetings at home.
After listening to Mr Rankin’s comments HBC’s outgoing Deputy Leader Colin Fitzgerald told the meeting: “I would be less concerned about diversity too if I was a millionaire landlord and owned my own road but unfortunately I know a lot of people in this chamber who do not have that luxury.”
Mr Fitzgerald said the proposals were about improving flexibility which he hoped might create a, “better range of councillors, so we are not all sitting here like some old boys club.”
Cabinet member, Councillor Andrew Batsford said he could not believe what he was hearing, ‘in this day and age.’
He said he could not believe that on the day when national the Labour party has called for an investigation in to what he described as ‘cronyism’ that Mr Rankin was suggesting that councillors should have as h put it: “side conversations, away from the cameras and away from the general public’s view… my goodness this is dodgy ground indeed.
“Why don’t you just bring back the cigars and the bottle of whisky on the side to make those dodgy deals as well?”
He described the new leadership of the Conservative group of, “smashing through equalities and equal opportunities… .”
“What are we scared of?” Mr Batsford asked.
Councillor Paul Barnett said: “To have the new leadership of the Conservative group talk about why this is not a democratic issue means we’re back in the stoneage.
“Women are telling us that it is up to men to make the change and I would like to think that the seven out of eight men on the opposition group might start listening to the women in this town.”
New Conservative group leader Councillor Andy Patmore has written to formally complain, telling HBC leader Kim Forward: “…it is not appropriate in any chamber to make unfounded, speculative comments about an individual councillor’s personal financial situation.
“I have no desire to know the personal financial situation of any councillor, it has no bearing on council business whatsoever. Should we open a debate in full council as to who is in debt or who is doing well in life?
“The whole debate in the end felt like institutional bullying. It is precisely this type of behaviour and intimidation that is putting off many prospective councillors from coming forward, not the fact that we must turn up for meetings in the town hall in person.
“This type of behaviour reflects very poorly on HBC and with the general public and is unbecoming of people elected to public office.”
On Thursday Mr Rankin wrote to Ms Forward as well as to HBC’s Managing Director Jane Hartnell and Chief Legal Officer Mary Kilner, he told them: “I was extremely disappointed at the personal attacks made on me at full council from Councillors Fitzgerald, Batsford and Barnett. I made two points which I feel were legitimate – virtual meetings do not in my opinion lead to a more diverse council and also lessen the opportunity for cross party collaboration.
“I also added to these points that I was surprised Councillor Fitzgerald in his previous statement castigated Conservatives for financial cuts and then encouraged us to back the town deal which is a Conservative funding initiative – this seemed to upset him – but instead of engaging in a political debate on the matter (he) attacked me for being a ‘millionaire landlord who owns a road in the town’.
“Councillor Batsford accused me of seeking to have side conversations with other councillors and officers during face to face meetings, referring I imagine to the recent controversy of Conservative lobbying in Westminster, – as a way to seek pecuniary gain.
“Councillor Barnett accused me of denying equalities and of being sexist.
“There were other less insulting comments, however the three I have outlined above reflect badly on HBC and The Labour Party and are the very reverse of a progressive, tolerant and inclusive organisation – more akin to a brutish, bullying and intimidating one.
“Suffice it to say that these types of comments are not only wrong but could also be damaging to my personal and business reputation in the town. As such I reserve the right to seek legal advice regarding this unfortunate incident.”