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Canterbury City Council edits recording to remove slur against leader

An audio recording of a fiery council meeting has been edited by the local authority to remove allegations levelled at its leader.

During a mayor-making ceremony, Canterbury City Council chief Ben Fitter-Harding faced claims from an opposition councillor that he he had "bullied and intimidated” Conservative colleagues.

Former Lord Mayor Pat Todd entering the Guildhall for the start of the meeting
Former Lord Mayor Pat Todd entering the Guildhall for the start of the meeting

A recording of the meeting was shared on the authority's website - as is standard practice - but was taken down on Friday.

It was eventually republished, but only after the offending comments by Lib Dem leader Michael Dixey had been cut out.

During a heated exchange at the city’s Guildhall, Cllr Dixey had alleged his Tory counterpart had threatened fellow Conservatives with “deselection for the next local elections”.

Council spokesman Rob Davies says complaints had been lodged “about the language used” at the meeting, prompting officials to pull the footage from its website. An edited version was reinstated on Tuesday.

Mr Davies explained: “Following complaints about the language used, the monitoring officer advised council officers to edit the recording of the meeting, which required it to be removed from the website on Friday afternoon."

The row last week erupted as councillors debated the merits of holding a secret ballot to vote in the next Lord Mayor.

Prior to this, the ruling Conservatives had nominated the incumbent, Cllr Pat Todd, for his fifth term as the authority’s ceremonial head, seemingly paving the way for the group’s majority to see its preferred candidate voted into place.

But the decision had alienated some members, as it defied convention – sheriffs tend to become Lord Mayor.

Supporters of Cllr Anne Dekker, the sitting sheriff, were rumoured to be disillusioned by the decision.

And in the days before the meeting, eight opposition members launched a bid to ensure that only the numerical result of the vote for the position of Lord Mayor would be revealed.

Cllrs Fitter-Harding and Dixey were seen exchanging a quiet word while votes for the next Lord Mayor were cast
Cllrs Fitter-Harding and Dixey were seen exchanging a quiet word while votes for the next Lord Mayor were cast

They believed dissenting Conservatives would be emboldened by the knowledge their vote would not be revealed to their leader.

But as the summit started, Tankerton Tory Neil Baker attempted to thwart the plot, by moving to suspend the ability to call a secret ballot.

This prompted the lodging of a second application by the opposition - which meant there would be a secret vote on whether to have a secret vote.

Senior Tory Rachel Carnac stated: “It’s a Monty Python sketch.

“We’re having a secret vote about a secret vote for a position that we all know residents have no interest in.

“What is the opposition doing? We’ve not been elected to hide.”

Labour head honcho Dave Wilson noted it was “a little odd we have to do this”, pointing to the fact secret ballots are “a provision in the new constitution pushed through by the Conservatives”.

He also argued it would allow “voters to express their views without either upsetting the candidates or exposing themselves to bullying and intimidation tactics”.

Cllr Dixey told the summit he had spoken to some “very unhappy” Conservative councillors, who said they had been “treated extremely shabbily” by the party’s leadership.

This came before he claimed there had been “threats of deselection for the next local elections”.

Senior Conservative councillor Rachel Carnac argued the decision to hold a secret vote undermined "openness and democracy"
Senior Conservative councillor Rachel Carnac argued the decision to hold a secret vote undermined "openness and democracy"

Cllr Fitter-Harding met the allegations with shouts of “slander” and “prove it” as the room descended into uproar.

In response, Cllr Dixey told his rival: “It’s not hearsay; it’s truth. Go ahead and sue me – I challenge you to do that.

“I believe the words used by Cllr Wilson were bullying and intimidation – bullying and intimidation – and that’s what’s been happening. Not a good advertisement for local government.

“I think I’ve said all I need to say. The truth hurts, doesn’t it?”

It was this exchange that had been removed from the local authority’s audio.

Cllr Fitter-Harding says he lodged a complaint about Cllr Dixey’s comments with the local authority on Friday evening, after the full recording had already been taken down.

He added: “Decisions to edit recordings are something the council’s monitoring officer and head of legal services have to make themselves.

“They have taken this decision independently of me or the influence of anybody else, and have done this in the best interests of councillors and the council.

“I don’t think the public elected us to make insults and allegations at each other that have nothing to do with how we represent them. I don’t think that kind of conduct is ever acceptable in the chamber.”

Cllr Dixey did not wish to comment on the decision to remove his claims from the public record.

Tankerton councillor Neil Baker displaying his ballot
Tankerton councillor Neil Baker displaying his ballot

However, he expects to be reported to the authority’s standards committee.

On the night, at least three Tory members broke ranks and voted for the secret ballot.

Following this, Cllr Baker explained why he would be supporting Cllr Todd to remain in the position of Lord Mayor.

“I know some people have concerns about individuals holding the esteemed office of Lord Mayor for a long period of time. But, of course, I would always raise the danger of trying to enforce term limits.

“Look at America, they moved from Barack Obama, who was quite rightly seen as a very good president, and ended up with a Donald Trump. That was pretty appalling and it ended up embarrassing America.

“We’ve heard some pretty outrageous comments tonight, but I would like to thank the opposition for trying to play a pastoral role in the wellbeing of members of the Conservative group.

“I would just beg that they give real consideration to backing the horse who will not give them the most hassle in terms of needing to provide that pastoral care in the future. I’ll leave it at that.”

Cllr Baker’s remarks appeared to be a thinly disguised dig at Cllr Dekker, who insiders say riled some colleagues by penning an eight-page document called Being Sheriff of Canterbury, which was branded “snobbish”.

In it, the member for Herne and Broomfield offers tips to prospective sheriffs such as “you have to have your regalia clean and presentable” and “you must project the right level of interest” at functions.

She also notes the “small allowance” given to those in the role “goes nowhere towards the £10,000 necessary to cover the costs for you and your consort”.

Cllr Dekker was voted Lord Mayor against her party leader's wishes
Cllr Dekker was voted Lord Mayor against her party leader's wishes

“You are an ambassador for Canterbury and the whole district,” Cllr Dekker adds in the divisive help-pack. “You will not always remember everyone you come into contact with, but they will remember you.

“They will quote you, remember who (if anyone) you referred to and what you did (or didn’t do). Not everyone wants to do this job. In reality, not everyone can do this job. It is exciting and scary, demanding and challenging, interesting and exhausting.

“Unlike elsewhere, you will get little or no help from our councillors, some of whom have been known to declare civic roles are for weak, failing or bad councillors.”

Despite this, just 12 plumped for Cllr Todd, while 23 supported Cllr Dekker. Two others spoiled their ballots.

Sturry councillor Louise Harvey-Quirke was voted in as sheriff.

‘It’s completely untrue - that’s not how we work’

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Fitter-Harding and Cllr Carnac denied the accusations that had been levelled at them.

“It’s completely untrue – that’s not how our group works,” the council leader said.

The meeting began with the usual pomp and ceremony
The meeting began with the usual pomp and ceremony

“It was very hurtful and difficult to sit through that, especially as Rachel and I work so hard together with our group to make decisions together.

“I don’t think I’m a very intimidating person at all – I’m anti-confrontational and about compromise.

“Cllr Dixey wouldn’t be privy to the work we do within our group. I wonder if in the fullness of time if he’ll apologise, as that’s not how we do democracy in Canterbury – it makes us all look bad.”

Cllr Carnac added: “We’re not the chairmen of the local party associations, so we’re not selecting people for the next election or are part of that process. I have no idea what Cllr Dixey was talking about.

“If you want to attract people into politics, then what happened on Wednesday is the biggest way to put people off.”

The pair say the group follows rules created by the national party which oblige members to support decisions agreed by a majority of councillors.

They stress these are the same principles every other Tory group across the country operates under. They were most recently updated last year.

“We agree on a position, and that’s how we vote. That’s why as a group we decided to nominate Pat Todd for Lord Mayor,” Cllr Fitter-Harding continued.

“It was apparent there were people who didn’t want to support the group’s position, and I worked with them to put together a compromise to allow them freedom on the night.

“If Pat had been unsuccessful, then our councillors will have nominated Cllr Dekker – but of course the opposition jumped the gun and decided to propose her themselves, which was bizarre.

Herne and Broomfield councillor Anne Dekker was voted Canterbury's Lord Mayor following the secret ballot
Herne and Broomfield councillor Anne Dekker was voted Canterbury's Lord Mayor following the secret ballot

“It’s all the evidence you need to know Cllr Dixey’s allegations are false. It saddens me greatly the ensuing chaos happened, and it was because the opposition tried to be clever and make trouble.”

When asked why a handful of his party colleagues voted for a secret ballot, Cllr Fitter-Harding said he believes they did it due to “personal preference” as they “didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings”.

He insists no one from his group will have been reprimanded for voting for Cllr Dekker, as “the impact on residents from the election of Lord Mayor – particularly when it’s between two Conservatives – is non-existent”.

The role – which is the highest office the local authority can bestow – is elected annually.

Those holding the title of Lord Mayor become the “first citizen” of the district, as well as the official representative of the crown.

They also chair full council meetings and hold the casting vote when members are evenly split on an issue.

Following the Lord Mayor ballot, all 22 Conservative councillors voted for Cllr Fitter-Harding to remain as their leader on Wednesday night.

“They wouldn’t have done that if they thought I was a bully or intimidating,” he contended.

“I absolutely do feel safe in my position – I didn’t see it as a revolt at all.

“With the vote of Lord Mayor there are a lot of personal relationships at play. I’m pleased the group continues to show faith in me as their leader.”

“It’s not hearsay; it’s truth. Go ahead and sue me – I challenge you to do that..."

A source close to the party says the “vast majority” of councillors are putting Wednesday’s events behind them, but there remains “some disaffection”.

Despite this, they believe Cllr Fitter-Harding is not under threat, adding “he managed it very well”.

Cllr Dekker told KentOnline she does not know why she was not made the Conservative group’s official nomination.

She also insists the first time she was made aware of the opposition plot was when the first application for a secret ballot was lodged, a week before the ceremony.

Responding to Cllr Baker's comments, Cllr Dekker said: “I won’t ever embarrass Canterbury, its council or residents. I’ve simply taken up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’ll do my best.

“I wouldn’t venture to say what’s inside his head.

“In the Being Sheriff of Canterbury document, I tried to pre-empt questions that could occur and have ready answers. Surely it’s better for people wanting to become sheriff that they know what will be expected of them.

“The breakdown of the costs that I compiled were shown to interested parties and past sheriffs as being true and realistic. These are all facts.”

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