Council meeting halted after heated altercation

Rothbury Jubilee Hall
Rothbury Jubilee Hall

Police were called to a rural parish council meeting last night after a heated altercation brought the session to an end.

The August meeting of Rothbury Parish Council was brought to a dramatic end after an altercation between members of the public took place following a ‘heated discussion’.

The session, which began at 7.30pm, was officially closed by chairman Mark Gilson at 8.56pm during the public participation section of the meeting.

Sgt Graham Vickers, who responded to the call, said: “We got a call to the parish council meeting, there’s been a heated discussion and the chairman has cancelled the meeting. I’ve asked people to reflect who were present and I will reflect over the meeting with the chairman in due course.” He added that ‘no offences or allegations were made at this time’.

The public participation section was the seventh item on the agenda and there was still a further 18 items to be discussed when the session was disbanded.

There were six members of the public who stood to speak in the packed room of more than 40 residents. Three residents wished to comment on an application to demolish an existing agricultural barn/workshop and erection of three two-storey detached dwelling houses.

However, it was the fourth speaker, Rothbury resident Carol Meredith, who shifted the attention to a different subject of the evening.

Ms Meredith asked the chairman a series of questions relating to an ‘individual who is being referred to as having vexatious and persistent behaviour in relation to the parish council’. He was later referred to as Tony Kell.

She asked more than seven questions to the elected body including if it was possible to ‘bar this individual from future parish council meetings given his adverse and costly impact on both the parish council and this community?’

As the chairman was allowed to respond, Coun Gilson explained that it was hard to answer some of the questions because the body is ‘under legal advice at the moment’ and could not ‘really talk about’ some of the issues.

When asked if ‘any legal advice found that he has just cause for his actions’ Coun Gilson said: “Is there any legal basis? Yes, of course there is. There are quite a few Is and quite a few Ts we haven’t crossed.”

He went on to say: “Yes, we’ve made mistakes, parish councils make mistakes, we’re amateurs, we’re not professional politicians.”

Fifth to speak was Berwick town councillor Georgina Hill, who asked questions on behalf of David Spencer Barclay.

Coun Hill said that she was going to ask ‘six or seven’ questions to the council and started by asking: “Is it a policy in Rothbury to try to intimidate and belittle members of the public who wish to participate in the democratic process and scrutinise and hold a council to account?”

Laughs were heard in the room, to which Coun Hill responded: “This council sounds like it’s even more of a basket case than Berwick Town Council. I’m disgusted at the intimidation that’s gone on, people are trying to participate in the democratic process and you might feel very happy with yourself acting like a mob trying to intimidate Tony Kell.”

Coun Hill said that she was ‘interested in the wider issue of transparency and reform in local government’ which was why she attended the meeting with other members of Berwick Town Council and Berwick residents.

She posed an array of questions to the parish council on issues such as financial regulations, purchase orders, contracts and invoices, the council’s duty as an employer and its duty toward its employee.

Coun Hill also posed a question to Rothbury’s county councillor Steven Bridgett, asking: “With Mr Bridgett’s experience of good practice and financial control, does he consider it as adequate control that a process intended for genuine emergencies – involving only two councillors and the clerk agreeing spending in private session – is used for a nine-week period in the summer, while a different process requiring at least three councillors meeting, subject to scrutiny by the full council in public session, is required for the other 43 weeks of the year?”

Coun Hill’s questions did not receive an official response from the chairman, who asked instead for the copy of the questions to be given to the council so they could ‘respond properly’.

Following Coun Hill, Berwick councillor Karin Graham claimed that the council had ‘not followed legal process at all’ in relation to Coun Hill’s question to Coun Bridgett. Coun Graham claims that there were ‘nine weeks during the summer where you [Rothbury Parish Council] used delegated authority to exchange cash, that is not legal’.

Rothbury parish councillor Jeff Reynolds said: “That is absolute rubbish. The chairman and two councillors can authorise.”

Coun Graham went on to ask a number of questions and also stated that a member of the public ‘took a photograph in my face in that chair and his wife told me to leave the town before I’d even got out of the car’.

After a further 15 minutes of questions from Coun Graham, she asked the council if they wished to resign from their posts and start afresh. Coun Gilson then drew, in his own words, a straw poll and asked if they should resign to which there was a large response of ‘no’ from the public.

Coun Bridgett added: “This meeting has turned into what Berwick Town Council has been like for the last two years and we are an hour and 15 minutes into this show and we haven’t even discussed anything to do with the parish.”

The meeting finally ground to a halt after an ‘altercation’ occurred in the public area and Coun Gilson stopped the session.

Speaking after the meeting, Coun Gilson said: “As chairman of the meeting, it got to the stage where I believed no more useful purpose would be served by continuing the meeting, so I banged the gavel, said ‘this meeting is closed’ and phoned the police.”