Two councillors walked out of a Community Safety Forum meeting this afternoon (Monday 12 March).
Brighton and Hove City Council Conservative members Tony Janio and Dawn Barnett, who both represent Hangleton and Knoll, left the meeting as the row over travellers rumbled on.
Councillor Janio took exception to remarks made at an earlier meeting which he believed implied that he was racist.
He asked the forum’s chairman Councillor Ben Duncan if he would apologise for those remarks, made last October. Councillor Duncan said no.
Councillor Janio criticised the Green councillor for saying: “Although the evidence seems to show that there had been no more gypsies and travellers visiting the city since 2011 than in previous years, the debate has begun to spiral out of control to the point where racial harassment and violence towards travellers has become a major and, some would say, the biggest community safety issue facing the city.
“The debate about the council’s policy towards travellers must not stray into racial abuse or harassment.”
Councillor Duncan told the earlier meeting that he was increasingly concerned that some meetings and demonstrations in the city had fuelled exactly that sort of language and behaviour.
He urged everyone, especially councillor members of the forum, who really should know better, to bear in mind their responsibility to respect both the law and the principles of community cohesion when debating these issues.
Councillor Janio said: “For you to imply that Councillor Barnett and I were making racist statements, or that councillors shouldn’t be holding public meetings about an issue affecting residents in their ward, is a disgrace.
“You should be ashamed of yourself and, in our view, you have let yourself and this forum down in a big way.”
Councillor Janio said that Councillor Duncan had made his remarks in a slot set aside for the chairman’s communications which were not supposed to be contentious or political and which were not traditionally debated. This meant that individuals who felt that they were being criticised would not have the opportunity to respond.
Councillor Janio said: “You made what many consider to have been an overtly political speech that attempted to silence democratically elected members from discussing an issue of great importance to our residents.”
He criticised Councillor Duncan for saying: “A good test would be to substitute the word ‘black’ for the word ‘traveller’ when discussing the issue.
“For example, a meeting to discuss the issue of travellers in the city would be as offensive to many as a meeting to discuss the issue of blacks in the city and would probably be illegal too.”
Councillor Janio said: “What a lot of nonsense. If anyone pitched up on Greenleas Park – be they black, white, pink, Martian, traveller or non-traveller – it would still be wrong.
“This is not a race issue and for you to try to it into one is despicable.
“This forum has managed over several years to remain politically neutral. It has stuck to the facts.
“Your statement was politically motivated and until you apologise to the forum, Councillor Barnett and I will not be returning as members.”
After the meeting Councillor Duncan said: “I’m really disappointed. It’s a shame that Councillors Janio and Barnett are not going to participate in the forum’s activities.
“It’s a bit of a dereliction of duty. You can’t raise issues of you’re not here.
“I will be writing to the Conservative group leader Councillor Geoffrey Theobald to ask if he will send other members so that the Conservative group can continue to show the interest that it has historically always shown in community issues.
“I made very careful comments. They were comments about the issue. What travellers are suffering from is racism.
“That was the point I was making without singling out any individuals.
“I wasn’t trying to stifle debate. I’m happy for people to talk about the issue but not in racist terms.”