Thursday, 11 August 2022

Mayor chosen by abstention

Mayor chosen by abstention

HENLEY Residents’ Group snatched control of the town council in a dramatic twist at mayor-making.

Kellie Hinton (HRG) became Mayor instead of Conservative mayor-elect Will Hamilton after his party colleague Lorraine Hillier abstained.

This meant that HRG was able to win the vote 8-7, having won the two council by-elections last week, to take control.

In a further twist, Councillor Hillier was elected Deputy Mayor, serving as an Independent Conservative, just two years after she was mayor.

The drama sparked a walkout by about 20 members of the public at the town hall ceremony and outgoing Mayor Julian Brookes had to calm down the audience of around 200.

After the ceremony, Cllr Hillier was branded a “disgrace” by one of Councillor Hamilton’s supporters and was reduced to tears. But she denied any wrongdoing or making a deal with HRG in order to secure the role of deputy mayor and claimed she had even been offered the role by the Conservatives.

Cllr Hillier admitted she had attended a meeting with HRG councillors and members but said there was no discussion of the deputy mayor’s job and she hadn’t known she would be nominated until Sunday evening.

“I wasn’t just looking for a position. It was never a carrot,” she said. “It was just a case of making things happen on the council and getting that sorted out.”

Cllr Hillier claimed that she had been “ostracised” by the Conservatives after accepting a nomination by HRG for a second successive term as mayor when Councillor Brookes was elected a year ago. She said she had wanted to stay on to help oversee the transition to the then new town clerk, Janet Wheeler.

“There wasn’t a lot of dialogue happening between us because I was left out of the email trails and airbrushed out,” she said.

“A year ago I was effectively an Independent but I didn’t want to make a fuss of it. When the by-elections came up, I said that whatever the outcome I would probably go Independent afterwards. I didn’t want to do anything before to upset things.”

Cllr Hillier, who runs the Hot Gossip coffee house in Friday Street, said she had told Cllr Hamilton of her decision in an email on April 28.

She continued: “I said, ‘I just feel with everything that has gone on, it is the best course of action for me’. The working relationship had broken down.”

She said her decision to abstain was difficult and it wasn’t meant to be
personal . “I’ve got a lot of compassion for Will,” she said. “It is very regrettable. It is a sad day for him.

“It wasn’t about getting back at them but I didn’t want to see it carry on in the way it was. I think it’s very important at parish level that we all work together.

“I do respect them all. There are some very senior members in the Conservative Party and they have got a wealth of knowledge about the town and we need that to keep it going.

“I’ve always been Conservative and I always will be. It’s not unusual for Conservatives to become Independent at parish level because a parish council is supposed to be non-political and really it’s about local issues and working for the good of the town. I vote with my conscience and I think that’s important.

“I would like to see a unified town council and when I was Mayor in 2015 I think we were some way to achieving it and I would like to build on that.”

She said she was happy to support Cllr Hinton and would have her sister Susan George as her escort once again.

Cllr Hillier added: “I just hope when all of this furore settles down people will appreciate no matter what position you have, it’s about doing the best we can for Henley.”

Clllr Hamilton, who was chosen as mayor-elect in March and had served as deputy mayor for the last year, had learned what was likely to happen in a meeting with HRG councillor Stefan Gawrysiak on Saturday.

Cllr Gawrysiak, who defeated Conservative David Nimmo Smith in an election to Oxfordshire County Council last week, told him that he expected HRG would have a majority at Monday’s ceremony.

Cllr Hamilton said: “He confirmed to me that HRG were going to put up a candidate for mayor and deputy mayor against me.

“I confirmed to him that at 8-8 and parity we should be fairly sharing roles and responsibilities and that Julian as the previous mayor had a casting vote but he was ‘of the view’ that HRG could present a 9-7 majority at mayor-making. I was unaware of Cllr Hillier’s voting intentions but I respect the democratic process.

“In my first four years, when we were in opposition, we never put up a candidate in a ceremony like this.

“I was the Deputy Mayor and what I would say is I was the future once. I became mayor-elect on March 28 and this was ratified at full council on May 3. Given the journey I’ve been on, I’m surprised, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Cllr Hamilton admitted he and his partner Joanne Cope were “deeply disappointed” but said: “It means so much to me to have had my father, brother and all my close friends and clients, and even my godson, here today to support me at this ceremony.

“I respect the democratic decision — we have followed the right and proper due process.

“I have enjoyed being the Deputy Mayor of Henley and I’ve enjoyed working with Councillor Julian Brookes as Mayor. I’ll now take some time out and reflect.”

Dieter Hinke, chairman of the Henley Conservatives, said the by-election results last week had produced a town council that would have been politically balanced with eight councillors each and provided an opportunity to move away from the divisive model of many past years.

“However, habits are hard to break and once more we enter the political battlefield,” he said.

“Cllr Will Hamilton has worked incredibly hard as Deputy Mayor for the last year and was elected unanimously by all councillors to be mayor-elect.

“The position of mayor is an honour and is a ceremonial position in the town.

“However, just a few weeks after this vote of confidence, a majority of those councillors who elected him as mayor-elect decided that he was no longer their choice.

“He found out that he would not be mayor three days before the ceremony.

“This decision was only made possible after a long-standing member of the Conservative councillors was persuaded to leave the party and not vote for Cllr Hamilton, resulting in an HRG majority.

“The emotional stress and disappointment of Cllr Hamilton is an undeserved outcome on someone who just wanted to serve his community.

“But the other unwelcome consequence is a town council that is now more politically divisive than ever.”

Councillor Nimmo Smith, leader of the Conservatives on the council, said: “I wasn’t surprised at what happened, I was disappointed.”

He said he was only told on Monday morning by the town clerk that Cllr Hillier was classifying herself as an Independent Conservative.

He said Cllr Hamilton had been “played” by HRG and Cllr Hillier, which was why his supporters had left the ceremony.

“We all went out and had a drink with him and commiserated with him and he’s going to go off for a few days’ holiday and I don’t blame him,” said Cllr Nimmo Smith.

“Will’s the kind of person who will come back because you can’t stop that spirit in him.”

Gill Dodds, the leader of HRG and a former councillor and mayor, said: “The councillors were warned that to choose a mayor-elect in a year when you have two by-elections and the balance of power could alter is not a wise thing to do.

“He [Cllr Hamilton] could not assume he was going to be mayor.”

She claimed the Conservatives had treated Cllr Hillier “badly” and had excluded her from meetings over the last year.

Mrs Dodds said she was delighted to see Cllr Hinton become Mayor.

“She’s lovely, a young mum, very energetic, very enthusiastic, and a Henley girl,” she said.

Cllr Gawrysiak said Cllr Hinton would be a “great ambassador” for Henley.

“We thought that Kellie would need some experience and understanding so we had a conversation within our party about the mayor and deputy mayor positions.

“The important thing is that, seven weeks ago in full council, we stated — and it’s in the minutes — that the mayor-elect and deputy mayor-elect should be deferred because there was a by-election coming up that could change everything. The residents of Henley spoke last Thursday very clearly in favour of HRG.”

He said that when Cllr Brookes became deputy mayor to Cllr Hillier in 2015 the Conservatives could have appointed Cllr Hamilton instead after his “long years of loyal service”.

Cllr Gawrysiak said: “I am absolutely aware of the human story behind this and, out of respect and courtesy for Will, I informed the chairman of the Henley Conservatives and Cllr Hamilton.

“He came to my house and I explained to him in very clear terms what I thought was going to happen, so I behaved honourably in actually informing him of that.”

He added: “Henley Town Council has to function for the benefit of all the residents and we will now turn our attention to getting things done over the next two years.

“We will absolutely include all councillors in decision-making and invite ideas from all councillors for the betterment of Henley.

“Kellie has been a fantastic resident of Henley for a long time and all the work that she does speaks volumes for her.”

Before the ceremony, Cllr Hillier was sitting in the main hall between two members of HRG when her former Conservative colleagues arrived.

There were mutterings and sideways glances when Roger Cole, pastor of Henley Baptist Church, said a prayer and asked those present to “pray for the new mayor and her family”.

Cllr Hinton, who is chairwoman of Henley in Bloom, was nominated by Councillor Ian Reissmann and seconded by Councillor David Eggleton.

Cllr Reissmann said: “I have known Kellie for 30 years.

“Right from the first moment that I met her it has been obvious that she has great assurance and a wonderful personality.

“There’s no deviousness or side with Kellie and her combination of directness together with excellent skills in tact and diplomacy will all be great assets to her as mayor.

“She is best known for her work on Henley in Bloom and the town hall is stacked with gold awards won under her inspirational and enthusiastic leadership.

“However, Cllr Hinton does many other things too and lots of these she does quietly, under the radar, often with her comrade-in-arms, Cllr Eggleton.

“Cllr Hinton’s record is impressive. Even more impressive is the way she goes about her work for Henley. She is irrepressibly positive and energetic with a ready smile and a throaty chuckle.

“Not only does she get things done in a great spirit, she works with anyone who, like her, is keen to help Henley and its residents.

“Cllr Hinton is already a great ambassador for the town, possessing the skills and experience necessary to be our next mayor.

“She is keen and enthusiastic about the prospect, daunting as it is, and all her reasons for becoming mayor are the right ones: serving Henley and the residents to the best of her considerable ability.”

Cllr Hinton, who at 31 is the town’s youngest ever Mayor, was cheered as she was elected.

She told the audience: “Those of you who know me know that when I became a councillor six years ago it was clear from the start that it became my passion to work for this town .

“Most of you will also know me as the ‘flower lady’ or the ‘girl who does the bloom’.

“I will not let you down and I’m immensely proud of this town council and this town and with your help I will work hard to keep the vibrant community we all know and love.

“There are people in this room who will have not been expecting this result and, while I know people of the town spoke clearly when they cast their votes on Thursday, I understand and accept that there’s some disappointment.

“We now have a balanced council and it will be the responsibility of myself and my colleagues on the council to put aside our differences and work together for the good of the town and our residents.

“I respect every member around this table and I hope that we can prove that our interest in being here is to improve the lives of our townspeople.

“I am committed to chairing this council in a fair, transparent and inclusive way and I ask for the co-operation of my colleagues here to achieve this.”

Cllr Hinton said there were “trying times” ahead and the integrity of the town had to be defended and its history and heritage protected.

She continued: “We will not put up with being unheard by other authorities — our voice, and the voice of our residents, will be heard.”

Cllr Hinton, who lives in Queen Street, was watched by her partner Ben and six-year-old daughter Hallie. She paid tribute to her “soul mate, best friend and partner”.

“His love and support will be the medicine I need as I take on this year with full force,” she said.

She will use her mayoral year to raise money for Henley’s four state primary schools — Trinity, Sacred Heart, Badgemore and Valley Road — and will host civic events aimed at families, beginning with the Mayor’s Big Picnic in July.

After the ceremony, she said: “I was honoured to be selected by my HRG colleagues. I immediately phoned my mum in Spain and she booked a flight at short notice and arrived in the middle of the night.”

She said the mayoral vote had been democratic.

“The election did shift the power of the council and we had to honour the voice of residents while still protecting the integrity of the town hall,” said the Mayor.

“Had the result on Friday been any different I would probably not be standing here and I think we are all aware of that. My commitment is to work hard with all the councillors around the table.

“I’m committed to being a non-partisan chair of this council and ensuring everyone has a fair voice.

“I respect everybody around the table and I promise to work together and perhaps heal some of the relationships that may have been fractured by how the vote went.”

Her daughter said: “It’s really great and I think I will now call her ‘Mummy Mayor’!”

Cllr Eggleton, who will be Mayor’s consort, said: “I’m honoured to be supporting Kellie — her belief and the way she has brought me through, that is why I’m here today.”

Councillor Nimmo Smith proposed Cllr Hamilton and this was seconded by Councillor Sam Evans. In his nomination speech, Cllr Nimmo Smith said: “No one has a right to be the mayor of Henley but there are those who work their socks off as town councillors and who should allow this work to be recognised on a larger stage. Cllr Hamilton is one such person.

“He has actively and loyally supported every Mayor in his six years on the town council, most recently as deputy to the current mayor. Never one to give orders, he leads by example.

“Rolling his sleeves up and volunteering to get his hands dirty, cleaning up the town and buying a hanging basket, running and swimming to raise money for charities and supporting all the clubs, societies and myriad of organisations which make the town tick.

“He is an incredibly well-known member of our community, always approachable. He is incredibly generous with his time, effort and boundless enthusiasm for all things Henley — something which puts all of us to shame and which we can all learn from.

“It is sometimes difficult for us mere mortals to keep up with him.”

Cllr Nimmo Smith also led the thanks to the outgoing Mayor, saying he’d attended more than 260 events on behalf of the council.

Cllr Brookes then presented a cheque for £5,484 to each of his chosen charities for his mayoral year, youth and community project Nomad, Riverside Counselling and Henley YMCA.

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