The Liberal Democrat leadership of Bath and North East Somerset got off to an adversarial start as they were accused of blackmailing opponents and politicising a ceremonial appointment.
By a convention it should have been the turn of the Conservatives to select a council vice chairman and councillor Lisa O’Brien was expected to step into the role unchallenged.
But instead Lib Dem councillor Andy Furse’s hat was thrown into the ring.
The Lib Dems were condemned for using their majority in the council to get him elected but they said they had a mandate from the electorate and intended to deliver.
Group leader and new council leader Dine Romero apologised for the “nasty taste” the move left in people’s mouths and said she hoped it will be a low point for the administration.
Proposing Councillor Furse, Cllr Rob Appleyard said: “We live in changing times. The role of the chair and vice chair has changed in terms of representation and civic duties.”
He said it was now a matter of proportionality – the Lib Dems make up nearly two thirds of the council – and his party will maximise their opportunities to deliver.
The nomination surprised many members, who revealed what had happened in the moments before the council’s annual general meeting – which is also meant to be non-political – got underway on Tuesday evening.
Labour group leader Cllr Robin Moss said his party had been asked to withdraw a motion on the clean air zone because the council’s annual general meeting is meant to be non-political.
“It seems that lasted minutes, rather than hours or days,” he said. “This is a political decision on who should be vice chair. You clearly have the numbers to do it.”
Cllr Michael Evans, a Tory, went further and said Labour had been the victim of “straightforward blackmail”, claiming the Lib Dems would otherwise have refused to support Cllr Eleanor Jackson’s nomination as chair.
After a separate vote, Labour’s Cllr Jackson will be the chairman for 2019/20 after having served in the deputy role for the last year.
Cllr Richard Samuel, the new Lib Dem deputy leader of the council, said the Labour motion was “highly political, highly charged and a deliberate attempt to create misinformation”.
“We didn’t want to see this agenda politicised. We asked the chair [Cllr Karen Walker] to rule it out.”
Addressing Cllr Walker directly, he said: “You’ve become involved in a political decision. We requested that it [the motion] was removed from the agenda and that wasn’t done. We asked Labour to withdraw it.”
Cllr Chris Watt said the Lib Dems were overriding the convention on appointing a vice chair and warned it may take the same approach to other elements of the council’s constitution.
He said the party had a strong mandate and should instead use its majority to deliver on its promises to the electorate.
Cllr Appleyard admitted that it was a political move and said the chairman played an influential role in setting the tone of the meeting.
But Cllr Alan Hale viewed the position differently and said there was a responsibility to provide balance between opposing parties and views.
“It’s not a political role but it will be from tonight,” he added.
Cllr Paul Myers, the new Conservative group leader, said the role of chair rotated between the parties by convention and claimed the Lib Dems had acted out of “pure spite”.
He asked the Lib Dems to remove Cllr Furse from the running.
Cllr Paul Crossley said the Lib Dems were not trying to claim all the best roles for themselves, and other parties would lead the scrutiny panels.
Rather, he said it was about achieving the best for the council – and that meant appointing Cllr Furse over Cllr O’Brien.
Cllr Furse was voted in.
Accepting her new role as chair of the council, Cllr Romero said: “I hope this is the lowest point of the administration.
“I know for many of us it left a nasty taste.”
She revealed her new cabinet.
Cllr Samuel will be the cabinet member for resources.
Cllr Kevin Guy will be responsible for children’s services, while Cllr Appleyard will take on adult services.
Cllr Tim Ball’s remit will be housing, planning and economic development.
Cllr Crossley is the cabinet member for community services.
The Lib Dems are introducing job shares, which Cllr Romero said will be at no extra cost to the taxpayer.
Climate change and neighbourhood services will be shared between Sarah Warren and David Wood.
Transport services will be shared by Neil Butters and Joanna Wright.
Speaking after the meeting, Cllr O’Brien expressed her disappointment at missing out on the role and said the Conservatives had appointed Lib Dems and independents when they had been in power.
“I was looking forward to the role,” she said. “I’ve always aspired to it.
“This leaves a rather bad taste in the mouth.”
Stephen Sumner, Local Democracy Reporter