Councillors have ousted a colleague who was expected to become the next mayor of Brighton and Hove in a ceremony in three weeks’ time.
Conservative councillor Dawn Barnett was expected to don the mayoral robes and take over the chains of office from Labour councillor Alan Robins, the outgoing mayor, towards the end of this month.
Councillor Barnett was nominated by her party last month as a late substitute for the mayor-elect Mary Mears, who is currently deputy mayor.
Councillor Mears, 74, a former Conservative leader of Brighton and Hove City Council, had cross-party support but is unable to take on the role for health reasons.
Initially, most Labour councillors appeared to support Councillor Barnett’s nomination while most Greens were opposed.
But after a behind-the-scenes meeting late last week, the position shifted.
This took place after Councillor Barnett had been fitted for the mayoral robes and had nominated her mayoral charities.
This left some uneasy about the prospect of a political ambush at the ceremonial mayor-making which is due to take place at the Annual Council meeting on Thursday 26 May.
A number of councillors regarded the prospect of an ambush – an unannounced contest – as not in keeping with the dignified and non-partisan nature of the office of mayor.
By convention, the parties take turns nominating a councillor to become mayor for the municipal year, with the term of office for the largely ceremonial role usually starting each May.
When it became clear that Councillor Mears would be unable to take over, the Conservatives proposed Councillor Barnett.
Some members of the other two parties were unhappy that the Conservatives did not confer with them before announcing their nomination.
The Greens said: “We question Councillor Barnett’s suitability for this prominent role.”
Councillor Barnett said that her political rivals didn’t like her outspokenness – or what she said on a number of issues that divide the parties.
She said: “I’ve always spoken my mind and I know that not everyone likes that but I speak as I find.
“I’ve been told this is what the Greens don’t like – I’m quite outspoken. They don’t like what I’ve got to say.”
Councillor Barnett said that she accepted that she would have had to have been politically neutral in the role of mayor and added: “Being mayor, of course you haven’t got an opinion. Everyone who takes on the role knows that.”
But she criticised the way that the process had been handled since her nomination was announced, saying: “None of the other parties has had the courage or the decency or the courtesy to talk to me about this.”
She also said: “I’d like to know what I’m supposed to have said.”
If councillors were unhappy with what she had said or with her conduct, they were entitled to make a “standards” complaint.
But she added, she had not been found to have breached equalities rules when a standards complaint was made many years ago.
Councillor Barnett said: “Labour has a nerve when you think what it took for them to start sorting out the anti-semitism in the party.
“Some of the councillors who were Labour when they were elected are now Independents. And another one of the Independents left Labour because of the poor way they were handling it.
“As for the Greens, they want to get their own house in order first before they start criticising others.
“One good thing is I’ll have more time for my ward. It’s what I was elected for. I will carry on working hard for the residents of my ward.”
Councillor Barnett has represented Hangleton and Knoll ward since she was first elected at a by-election in 2004.
Although she turns 81 next month, she said that the whole episode had made her more determined to serve the residents of her ward along with fellow Conservative councillor Nick Lewry and prospective candidate Tim Hodges.
Councillor Barnett said: “There’s three of us – and all three of us are determined to hold on to the ward in May next year. We’re a team.”
The Greens said: “The Green group of councillors agreed we could not support the nomination of Councillor Dawn Barnett as mayor, following news that Councillor Mary Mears sadly could not take up the role as planned.
“We requested that Conservative councillors reconsider their nomination and provide another candidate.
“While the mayor of Brighton and Hove has no decision-making powers, they have an important role as first citizen of the city.
“As such, they represent the values of the city, especially at important community events.
“We question Councillor Barnett’s suitability for this prominent role that is supposed to be about representing all residents in our diverse city.
“We now understand that the Conservative group wishes to make no nomination and therefore a further candidate will need to be proposed.
“We will work collaboratively with all groups to ensure that there is a new mayoral candidate who can be supported by all councillors.
“We wish Councillor Mary Mears a speedy recovery and hope she is able to take up the role of mayor in future.”
The Greens are expected to nominate Councillor Lizzie Deane to be mayor. She is currently the deputy mayor-elect.
Labour said: “While the Labour group were happy to support Councillor Mears as mayor, and are saddened by her illness and wish her a speedy recovery and return to frontline politics, we had concerns about Councillor Barnett taking on the role.
“We hoped to resolve this issue privately, without any embarrassment to any individuals involved, so it is a shame this was leaked to the press.
“We approached the Conservatives and asked if they’d be willing to put up an alternative candidate that may be better suited to serving as the first citizen of our tolerant and diverse city.
“They decided that instead of putting up a different candidate, they would prefer to step aside and offer the mayoralty to the Greens in 2022 and Labour in 2023.
“We found this agreeable, and wish the best of luck to all our future mayors.”
Independent councillor Peter Atkinson, who represents the neighbouring North Portslade ward, said: “While I would probably disagree with Dawn on almost everything politically, she has been a great servant to her local residents and is one of the longest-serving councillors in the city.
“She didn’t gain the support of residents in Hangleton by accident and is one of the hardest working councillors I know.
“The position of mayor is apolitical and ceremonial – and Dawn understands that. I think it’s mean-spirited and morally wrong to deny her this opportunity on political grounds.”
What does the mayor do?
The mayor chairs meetings of the full council and formally represents the council at various public, civic and ceremonial events in and outside the city and welcomes important visitors and dignitaries.
He or she also works actively with a wide range of local organisations and promotes the city of Brighton and Hove at home and abroad.
The mayor attends about 600 engagements throughout the year. These include
- religious events of all denominations
- events in support of local charities and community groups
- welcoming new businesses to the city
- visiting schools, day centres, hospitals and care homes
- opening fairs and fetes and attending prize-givings
- speaking at dinners and receptions
- greeting local, national and international guests