An investigation has been launched after the first full meeting of a new unitary local authority saw a Tory whip accused of pushing down a Conservative colleague’s hand during a council chamber vote.
In an apology over the bizarre incident in which honorary Hambleton alderwoman Councillor Bridget Fortune appeared to be physically shown how to vote at a full meeting of North Yorkshire Council, Lower Wensleydale councillor Tom Jones said he had suffered “a moment of youthful exuberance”.
While the authority’s Opposition leader claimed Hutton Rudby councillor Fortune had been “trying to cast a vote deemed to side with the opposition”, Conservative members claimed there had been confusion after the council’s deputy leader raised his hand to ask a question.
Opposition members pointed angrily across the council chamber at County Hall, in Northallerton, and erupted with cries of foul play during a vote on whether former organic farmer and Green councillor Arnold Warneken should share the authority’s climate change champion role with Harrogate Conservative councillor Paul Haslam.
Green councillors claimed the proposal, which was lost on a single vote, had represented “a real opportunity for the ruling group to show that they want to work with others in order to help make the new council stronger”.
The council’s chairman, Tory councillor David Ireton, who was running the meeting, was asked whether it was in order “for a member to put down another member’s hand”, but he replied he had not seen the incident.
Immediately after the lunch break, Coun Jones issued an apology to all members for what he described as “my moment of youthful exuberance”.
He told the council chamber: “I have apologised to Councillor Fortune and I can assure you all she has given me a very very stern rebuke already.”
After hearing the apology Green councillor Andy Brown withdrew a request to refer the matter to the Standards Committee.
The council’s leader, Councillor Carl Les, said it would be inappropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation, but refuted Opposition claims that it illustrated the Conservative group’s three whips pressed councillors to vote in a particular way.
He said the Conservative group agreed policies on a majority basis and there were no sanctions or attempts impose decisions.
Coun Les said the whips’ role was to ensure “good communications”.
However, Leader of the Opposition, Councillor Bryn Griffiths, has requested the matter be examined by the council’s monitoring officer over apparent breaches of the council’s code of conduct.
If evidence is found Coun Jones may have broken the code he will be asked to appear before councillors to consider a potential reprimand.
Coun Griffiths said: “I don’t think it is acceptable to pass off this type of behaviour as youthful exuberance. This is party politics at its worst – and the residents of North Yorkshire deserve better.”
The Liberal Democrat leader said in “pouncing on a colleague who tried to vote the wrong way”, Coun Jones failed to treat another councillor with respect or conduct himself in a manner that might bring his position or the council into disrespect.
Labour group leader Councillor Steve Shaw Wright said while his members remained “civil and courteous”, the actions of one councillor “can bring the council into disrepute”.