Lib Dem leader says Horsham chairman should not browbeat her or public

Frances Haigh (centre) with other Lib Dem councillors
Frances Haigh (centre) with other Lib Dem councillors

The Lib Dem leader of the minority group on Horsham District Council tonight accused the council chairman Philip Circus of writing highly political letters to the County Times when he held ‘a non-political role as an ambassador for the council and the community.’

Responding to a letter published today on this website, Frances Haigh said Mr Circus as chairman ‘should be the conscience of the council.’

She said he should not have been trying to browbeat either the public or her.

Mr Circus’ letter lashed out at a reader of the County Times saying he ‘didn’t know what he was talking about’ and it accused Mrs Haigh of ‘political grandstanding’ on the unprecedented change of chairman-elect at a full council meeting two weeks’ ago.

The meeting provoked outrage when Christian Mitchell the vice chairman was dumped by his party from the chairman-elect role in a whipped vote. Mr Mitchell said he had paid the price for articulating his concerns on the housing plans for North Horsham.

Mr Circus said in his letter: “The kindest comment I can make concerning Peter Grace’s diatribe (Letters 6th March) about my conduct of the last Horsham District Council meeting is that he simply doesn’t know what he is talking about.

He added: “Finally, the protestations of opposition members that they did not know what was going on was disingenuous to say the least. The leader of the opposition [Ms Haigh] was fully briefed by the leader of the council [Ray Dawe] on the change in the majority group nomination before the council meeting took place. So the protestations at the meeting were nothing more than political grandstanding,” Mr Circus said.

Ms Haigh countered that she had not been fully briefed.

In a statement she said: “I welcome the stance taken by the WSCT in supporting the right to free speech in the council chamber. I hope that as we move towards elections in May 2015, the WSCT will continue to support all councillors who stand up and speak out on behalf of the people they represent.

“Mr Circus is right that I was briefed that the Conservative Group had elected to have Mr O’Connell as the chairman-elect [instead of Christian Mitchell]. The leader did not give me a full explanation of why this was happening.

“He implied that Mr Mitchell had not fulfilled his duties as a deputy, however during this period the deputy is given the opportunity to plan for his or her year as chairman. We subsequently knew that Mr Mitchell had been told back in September that his appointment would be blocked, just a few months into the council year. The leader said that the Conservative Group had put forward Mr O’Connell as an alternative.

“It is curious that the councillors who nominated Mr O’Connell are strong supporters of the North Horsham development.

“I considered it was right that the council and the public should be properly informed as to why Mr Mitchell had been deselected. They were not party to the briefing that I had received; and even if they had been, I am sure they would have wanted a better understanding, just as I did. Mr Newman also sought an explanation. Yet all we found was that there was to be no debate or discussion, and that the Conservatives were subject to a three-line whip.

“Questions do need to be asked about the issues that Cllr Mitchell has raised in the WSCT; false letters, secret trials, whatever next? Democracy is indeed dead in Horsham.”

Tonight Mr Mitchell resolutely rebuffed suggestions that he had not fulfilled his duties as deputy.

“If this was the case why hasn’t Mr Dawe, Helena Croft [deputy leader of HDC], or the chairman Mr Circus raised this before with me?”

Mr Mitchell said he had attended a host of events and commemorations in his deputy role - ranging from the Samaritan’s AGM to the opening of a photographic exhibition and the Remembrance Sunday service.

He supported events in aid of the Chairman’s Trust from a piano recital to a Dickensian evening and the civic carol service.

“There were only two events I could not attend - most notably the presentation of the County Times’ Community Chest Awards hosted by Hall and Woodhouse. As chairman of the licensing committee it would have been inappropriate to have accepted their hospitality, but I gave my reasons and apologies to the County Times’ editor and these were accepted.

“The reality of the matter is that I wrote to the leader of the council asking for a second time for a council investigation into false letters in support of North Horsham development which still remain in the council’s statutory public consultation.

“The written response received from Mr Dawe on 21 September 2013 concluded with the statement: ‘I am not willing to support any nomination for you as council chairman next year. I will over the weekend be deciding on an email that I will be sending to the HDC Conservative Group about this matter.’

“I paid the price for articulating residents’ concerns over the desecration of our green belt in North Horsham. As Ms Haigh astutely points out, September 21 was far too early in the council year - we were only four months into it - to determine whether I had or had not been performing my duties as vice chairman and I welcome her call for the questions I have raised to be answered.”