The first Green mayor of Brighton and Hove is expected to be elected this afternoon (Thursday 17 May).
Councillor Bill Randall is expected to take over the mayoralty as he steps down from his current post as leader of Brighton and Hove City Council.
His move comes as questions have been asked about the power of the “chain gang” – so-called because the mayor has a chain of office.
Some want the role of mayor made more powerful although the last time they were asked, the people of Brighton and Hove rejected the prospect.
Boris Johnson may have defeated Ken Livingstone again in London but who needs a Boris for Brighton? And what about a Ken on the coast?
The voters’ verdict – “No thanks” – suggests that, here, we like our mayors to be dignified, civil and ceremonial.
The referendum on the issue was just over ten years ago. At the time the debate seemed to centre less on the principle and more around whether former council leader Steve Bassam would make a good mayor.
But last month the council reaffirmed the result of that referendum even though elected mayors have been back in the frame lately. Ministers say that they want electors to know who’s making the decisions that govern our lives.
So if it’s not the mayor, who really decides what happens in Brighton and Hove?
Until relatively recently it used to be councillors in various committee meetings, just as it was in Victorian times.
Then we switched and invested power in a leader and cabinet – modelled on the style of the prime minister and his cabinet.
But now we’re going back to the future. Nine key committees will make most of the decisions that affect the way our city is run instead of a handful of individuals.
The full council will settle any differences and sign off the biggest decisions, with all councillors having a vote.
There will still be a leader of the council. This afternoon the job is expected to pass to 33-year-old Councillor Jason Kitcat.
So what does the mayor do? He will chair meetings of the full council and have a casting vote. At the same time he will be the public face of the city and the council.
When Councillor Randall takes over from Councillor Anne Meadows, a Labour member, he will welcome major conferences to the Brighton Centre such as the 8,000 Liberal Democrats who are coming in September.
He might hand out the trophies and certificates to youngsters at, say, a youth group’s annual prizegiving.
He will open new buildings, greet official visitors and eat dozens of buffet meals, lunches and dinners.
It remains a largely ceremonial post.
Not all our councillors are so keen on the new arrangements.
Graham Cox, a Conservative and the most recently elected member, told the meeting that approved the return of committees: “I’m probably in a minority here. I actually voted for an elected mayor when I had the opportunity and I think Lord Bassam would have made a good elected mayor.
“Councillor Mears would make a good elected mayor. Councillor Theobald would make a good elected mayor.
“I think Councillor Kitcat would probably make a good elected mayor too.”
While Geoffrey Theobald and Mary Mears were obvious candidates for his praise as fellow Tories, his plaudits for Steve Bassam and Jason Kitcat surprised some in the chamber. This was because Steve Bassam is a Labour politician and Councillor Kitcat is a Green.
But 62 per cent of those who voted in the referendum in Brighton and Hove rejected the idea of concentrating power in the hands of one individual, no matter how talented.
Less than two weeks ago ten more big cities put the policy to the test at the government’s behest. And in nine of those cities voters turned down the change.
Few cities have embraced the idea. One of those that has – Liverpool – dispensed with one of the more troublesome aspects of democracy and didn’t even bother with a referendum.
Previously, in another town, Hartlepool, the result of the first mayoral election was a triumph for the local equivalent of Brighton and Hove Albion’s mascot Gully. It was won by H’Angus the Monkey after he deployed gorilla tactics – he offered free bananas.
Mind you, the man in the monkey suit put away his costume and has since been elected a third time, giving some politicians food for thought.
And while most have welcomed the return of the committee system to Brighton and Hove, the way that they will work is not without its critics.
Councillor Theobald, who leads the opposition Conservative group on the council, accused the Greens of rigging the numbers.
The Greens have 23 of the 54 seats on the council. But despite being a minority administration, the party has a majority on the key committees, with the blessing of Labour.
The reasoning is that this will enable it to conduct council business more effectively and get things done more efficiently.
Councillor Theobald said that previous minority administrations – Conservative and Labour – carved up the committees fairly and in proportion to the total number of seats held by the different parties.
Each party achieved policy goals, he said, despite lacking a majority on committees.He called for his Green rivals to show a greater respect for the principles of democracy, adding: “This is an important point.”
The year ahead
So what can we expect from the first Green Mayor of Brighton and Hove?
One key prospect is a lack of party politics. Whoever takes the role is supposed to be neutral – like the Speaker in the House of Commons – or above the political fray rather like the Queen.
That’s a big ask for people who have often spent a lifetime spinning the party line. Just ask Pat Hawkes, the former Labour councillor who was Mayor of Brighton when the Conservatives returned for their annual conference in 1988.
It was the Tories’ first time in town since the Grand Hotel bombing. Her critical remarks coloured the official welcome and prompted booing in the Brighton Centre.
Councillor Randall intends becoming a model first citizen – but with some subtle differences.
Although the role is steeped in tradition – just check out the mayor’s chain and formal robes – Councillor Randall is expected to adapt some of the mayoral customs.
He emphasised that this was in no way intended as a criticism of those who had held the post before him.
As well as accepting many of the invitations that pour in to the mayor’s office, he is expected to highlight particular causes and organisations that are dear to his heart.
He will aim to avoid campaigning in the conventional sense. But he hopes to use his position positively while steering clear of party political controversy.
Thought for the day
The mayor chairs the meetings of the full council and traditionally the mayor’s chaplain says prayers at the start of proceedings.
Councillor Randall does not intend to appoint a chaplain for the year. Instead he intends to invite representatives of various religions to share the equivalent of a civic “thought for the day”.
He said recently that although he’s not religious, he’s not anti-Christian either. But he does hope to reflect some of the diversity of Brighton and Hove in an appropriate way.
His choice of charities underlines his interest in children and the vulnerable. He’s chosen the Martlets, the LGBT youth project Allsorts and Brighton Women’s Centre.
The fundraising mayoral dinner usually held at Christmas could well turn into a different sort of function – perhaps replaced by a party for the less fortunate.
It will be interesting to see whether councillors or senior officers play a part in reviving an old custom – where the bosses wait on the workers, or in this case, those discernibly less fortunate.
And while the Greens included the sale of the mayor’s CD1 numberplate in their budget this year, don’t be surprised to see the mayor’s car up for sale too. Or at least being replaced by an even greener machine.
The hybrid Prius may not be green enough. The new mayor is likely to be taken to and from engagements in an electric car.
So we can expect a new twist on some old customs but carried off with respect for a role that the Greens previously seemed not to hold in particularly high regard.
Modern mayors need a formidable mix of formality and informality – and the judgment to decide which is required at any given moment.
Few would doubt Councillor Randall’s capacity for dignity. But it will take every wile of a veteran politician to keep all shades of opinion happy in a council chamber split three ways.
He has though already shown a capacity for inclusiveness across the political divide while serving as leader and a generosity of spirit in giving credit where it’s due to his political opponents.
These traits will stand him in good stead as he brings his own understated style to serving in his new symbolic role.
Our outgoing mayor
Councillor Anne Meadows said: “I’ve loved being mayor. It’s like being Doctor Who. The role remains the same no matter who plays it.
“I didn’t think of that line – I’m swiping it from the High Sheriff! But it has truly been an incredible year.“You hide your own politics and let the city speak through you.
“I’m just so proud that the city I was born and brought up in, I’ve been able to represent.
“All the early mornings and late nights have been worth it. It’s hard work but it is worth it. Everywhere you go people are so pleased to see you.
“I’ve learnt an awful lot. I’d been a councillor for 17 years when I became mayor and I thought I knew quite a bit about Brighton and Hove.
“As a councillor you get to know a lot of what goes on in your ward. To see that replicated right across the city is quite amazing.
“It’s been an incredible and quite humbling experience. There are just so many voluntary groups and organisations out there.
“I’ve made it my mission to invite as many of them as possible to the Mayor’s Parlour for tea.
“I’ve given out certificates to Cubs and Scouts. I’ve met centenarians and small children. I’ve waved off floats at Pride and I went along to Student Pride.
“I’ve met older people’s groups in places like Hangleton and Portslade. I’ve welcomed royalty. I’ve never really met the rich and famous before.
“Doing the memorial and remembrance services has been fantastic.“When the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment came marching through the streets, that was an amazing experience.”
They had just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Councillor Meadows added: “I had to make a speech and the crowd were clapping. It was an amazing experience.
“I love dressing up. I’ve been joking that I’m going to get the chain photographed and put on a T-shirt. And when I get withdrawal symptoms, I’ll go and put it on.
“Everywhere you go, people offer you cake and a cup of tea. I take the tea but I’ve had to try really hard not to always take the cake.“Mind you, you never know when you’re going to eat.
“One day I had to go round 11 bowling clubs at the start of the season and each one offered me a glass of sherry.
“You want to be polite but as the day went on I had to refuse or I’d have been sozzled.
“I’m sure Bill (Randall) will embrace being mayor. The more you put in, the more you get out of it. It’s an amazing experience and I hope he enjoys it.”
BUM – Brighton’s Unofficial Mayor
One of the lighter moments of the mayoralty this year took place on stage at the Dome. Councillor Meadows introduced comedian Terry Garoghan at the start of the last ever Brighton the Musical.
And she did so with a rhyme that she’d written especially for the occasion.
Her verse tribute to Terry who is known affectionately as Brighton’s Unofficial Mayor – or BUM for short – had a packed house laughing before he had a chance to break into his first comic song.
She said: “He really truly didn’t know what I was going to say.
“In the wings he asked me if I was all right. I told him not to worry about me.
“He didn’t have a clue that I’d written a rhyme. But you couldn’t introduce Terry in an ordinary way!”
He escorted Anne to her seat after she earned the first laughs of the evening. But not before he trouped her round the stalls to affectionate cheers and applause.
He has since supported Anne at an event for her mayoral charities – the Sussex Beacon, Rise and the Fed Centre for Independent Living. She has also enjoyed the support all year of her husband Tony and teenage sons Harry and Scott.
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