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Cabinet member Mark Steele resigns after 'bullying' complaint made against New Forest District Council leader Edward Heron is thrown out

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CABINET member Cllr Mark Steele has resigned after his complaint alleging the leader of New Forest District Council had "bullied and intimidated" him was thrown out by the monitoring officer.

As reported in the A&T, Cllr Mark Steele said he had been threatened by Cllr Edward Heron with expulsion if he refused to back a plan to axe former leader Cllr Barry Rickman from the national park authority (NPA) after he was convicted of flouting environmental regulations.

Cllr Steele lodged a complaint on Friday accusing Cllr Heron of breaching the councillors' code of conduct by "seeking to coerce his vote", but the council's monitoring team ruled that as the leader of the council, the leader was "entitled to expect cabinet colleagues to support their decisions".

Cllr Mark Steele
Cllr Mark Steele

Expressing "disappointment" over the decision, Cllr Steele told the A&T his position had become "untenable" and that he was stepping down from his position as councillor.

Moves to replace Cllr Rickman with Tory Cllr Diane Andrews as one of the four NFDC representatives were agreed at last week's cabinet meeting, with Cllr Steele the only member to vote against.

Cllr Rickman resigned as NFDC leader and is now an Independent after being stripped of the Tory whip over a breach of the law at a scrapyard in Sway he co-owns with his brother, Robert. He was sentenced on Monday.

The council argued Cllr Rickman's position with the NPA was not politically "proportional", given that this "Conservative appointment" was held by a member who was an Independent.

Cllr Steele told the A&T he had requested a meeting with Cllr Heron the day before the cabinet vote in order to discuss the proposal to remove Cllr Rickman, which he said had "given him concerns".

"At that meeting I informed Cllr Heron I would be objecting, on the basis that Cllr Rickman has tirelessly worked, represented and stood up for New Forest residents for 34 years, as a parish councillor, a district councillor and as a member of the NPA," he said.

"The fact that Cllr Barry Rickman is now an Independent is not sufficient reason for his removal; indeed ex-councillor Richard Frampton kept his position and continued representing residents as a member of the NPA after becoming an Independent.

Cllr Edward Heron
Cllr Edward Heron

"And to my knowledge, the NPA has made no representation asking for the removal of Cllr Rickman."

Cllr Steele also argued the selection of the proposed replacement councillor had not been put to the Conservative group for discussion.

After putting his points across, Cllr Steele said he was given three options by Cllr Heron: to attend cabinet and support the recommendation; to not turn up with apologies; or vote against and resign.

But the council's monitoring team said there was nothing "improper" in the leader "pointing out the options open to a member" who finds themselves unable to vote for a Conservative proposal.

"We do not consider there was anything in the leader's words or actions that could give rise to a credible argument that he was using his position improperly to secure a disadvantage or that his conduct amounts to bullying," said the decision report.

"For these reasons, the monitoring team accordingly decides that no action should be taken."

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