A Hove councillor faces no punishment after a hearing found that she broke the rules about standards of conduct.
Councillor Dawn Barnett was cleared of failing to treat others with respect and breaking equality laws.
But she was found to have brought her office or authority into disrepute by a Brighton and Hove City Council Standards Committee Hearing Panel.
The finding was made for handing letters to travellers urging them to camp in Green-held council wards.
Councillor Barnett, who represents Hangleton and Knoll, faces no punishment on account of her record of good service and her actions since the complaint was made. These included withdrawing a threat to give the letter to any future illegal encampments.
The case against the Conservative councillor was prompted by a complaint made by Green councillor Phelim Mac Cafferty, who represents Brunswick and Adelaide ward.
Councillor Barnett gave letters to travellers who were camped in Greenleas Park in her ward.
Councillor Mac Cafferty wrote in his complaint: “There appear to be a number of different circumstances in which I believe the behaviour of Councillor Barnett to have been inappropriate.”
He said that she had acted in a discriminatory fashion towards people of another race – travellers – and had incited aggravated trespass in green spaces in wards with Green councillors.
He said that Councillor Barnett was using “increasingly alarmist language” and was “using prejudice against the Gypsy, Roma and traveller community to make political points”.
Brian Foley, the officer who investigated the complaint in behalf of the council, interviewed Councillor Barnett.
He suggested that she had not breached the council’s code of conduct in terms of respect for others or with regard to equality and the panel agreed.
It was accepted that she had an issue with anti-social behaviour but not with travellers in themselves. She felt that they should use authorised sites such as Horsdean. And believed that there should be better provision for Gypsies, Roma and travellers along the south coast.
Mr Foley said: “The arguments for and against whether Councillor Barnett has breached the code of conduct are finely balanced and the decision is consequently very marginal.
“Councillor Barnett’s highly publicised actions and statements regarding the travelling community have gone beyond what was necessary to discharge her functions as a ward councillor.
“Given the overall local context, the delicate state of community relations, Councillor Barnett’s choice of provocative ways and means to raise the issue and the likely impact of that approach on community relations, coupled with the apparent encouragement to commit a civil wrong it is difficult to escape the conclusion that, on the balance of probabilities, her actions have brought her office into disrepute.”
Councillor Geoffrey Theobald, leader of the opposition Conservative group on the council, spoke for Councillor Barnett.
He said that the accusations were spurious and added: “I don’t believe that her actions were likely to have a detrimental effect on community relations.”
He said that they reflected the strength of feeling that she knew existed in her ward.
He said: “Councillor Barnett’s actions were taken in good faith and with motivations that were genuine and heartfelt.
“Those of you who know Councillor Barnett will recognise these qualities in everything she says and does and they are what makes her such an effective councillor.
“Councillor Barnett has a fundamental right to free speech and freedom of expression.
“She is a democratically elected councillor who genuinely believed she was acting in the best interests of the residents.
“To deny her these rights would be an act of political censorship.
“The standards process is to root out corruption and illegal actions.
“It should never be a tool to use against other councillors with with whom they disagree.
“Groups of people were taking over parks and other open spaces and denying local people use of them.”
He said that they had prevented football and cricket matches and practice sessions and added: “There was significant disruption to local community life.
“This is a politically motivated complaint by a member who happens not to agree with Councillor Barnett’s views.
“The Standards Committee is not an arbiter of free speech and what councillors should and should not say.
“A councillor is accountable first and foremost to the voters who put her or him there. We should never lose sight of that fact.”
A witness on behalf of Councillor Barnett, Pat Weller, of Godwin Road, Hove, said: “Maybe she doesn’t always express things well but she’s a good, honest, wholesome person who is acting for the whole community.
“It’s not about race. It’s about people who infringe the rules.”
She said that Mr Foley had said that Councillor Barnett polarised public opinion when she was merely reflecting public opinion as she had been elected to do.
She added: “The presence of travellers polarises public opinion. The last travellers at Greenleas made it very clear to residents that they were on holiday and would not go to a registered site where they would have to pay.
“Getting them to leave is a long drawn out procedure and that exacerbates residents.”
Dr Michael Wilkinson, the independent chairman of the panel, said that there would be no sanction given Councillor Barnett’s record of good service, her co-operation with the investigation and her compliance with the code of conduct since the complaint was made.
Afterwards, Councillor Theobald said: “The level of sanction speaks for itself. ”
Councillor Barnett said: “I’m thankful it’s all over. It’s been six months of stress.”
She said that she was grateful for all the support that she had received in her ward and from her colleagues.
Mike Weatherley, the Conservative MP for Hove, attended the hearing. Afterwards he said: “The standards committee is not a forum to stifle freedom of expression based on political disagreements.”
He acused the Greens of wasting public money on a witch-hunt, adding: “Dawn has a huge amount of support from residents.
“Many people were becoming increasingly concerned that the Greens were tacitly supporting travellers over the interests of local residents.
“Dawn simply campaigned for our playing fields to be used for their intended purpose.
“I supported her from the beginning and have no time whatsoever for the findings of this unwanted organisation.
“The whole process has been a farce from start to finish and it just goes to show why the committee should be abolished.”
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