Controversial ex-Hartlepool mayor cleared of wrongdoing over conduct at meeting

Stephen Akers-Belcher, while serving as Mayor of Hartlepool
Stephen Akers-Belcher, while serving as Mayor of Hartlepool

Former Hartlepool Ceremonial Mayor Stephen Akers-Belcher has been cleared of breaching the council’s Code of Conduct when he chaired a volatile meeting.

Councillor Akers-Belcher was the subject of a formal investigation after several people complained about his handling of the heated extraordinary council meeting on February 16.

There were a variety of challenges in maintaining and preserving some degree of order

Peter Devlin, council monitoring officer

The meeting, to discuss standards at North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, was halted for 10 minutes after members of the public voiced their anger at councillors.

It was after a motion by Putting Hartlepool First councillor David Riddle for the council to withdraw all co-operation with the hospital trust, due to anger over hospital services being shifted from the town, was ruled out of order.

The complaints centred on Coun Akers-Belcher’s ‘extremely savage and unwarranted’ ordering of veteran Save Our Hospital campaigner Keith Fisher to leave the meeting for failing to sit down, despite being asked several times.

Others complained about the mayor using the word ‘closed’ when halting the meeting because of a lack of order, which led to several members of the public leaving before the end.

The investigation by council Monitoring Officer Peter Devlin and an independent person looked at whether Coun Akers-Belcher was guilty of breaching two obligations of the code.

They were to treat others with respect and not conduct yourself in a way contrary to the authority’s duty to promote and maintain high standards of conduct among its members.

But while Coun Akers-Belcher’s terminology in halting the meeting was found to be ‘inappropriate’ it found he had not breached the code against the heated background of the meeting.

The investigation also found the mayor was justified in asking Mr Fisher to leave.

Mr Devlin said in the report, which was presented to the council’s Audit and Governance Committee yesterday: “Accordingly, I did not find a breach of the Code of Conduct although I must recognise the inappropriate terminology used by the Ceremonial Mayor, which did not assist and is a component part, along with other matters, serving to undermine the overall conduct of this meeting.”

He added: “However, this must be seen against the background of a particularly heated and as mentioned ‘stormy’ proceedings upon which there were a variety of challenges in maintaining and preserving some degree of order.”

Coun Akers-Belcher accepted he said he closed the meeting, but told the inquiry it was intended to try to restore order and, if necessary, lead to a period of adjournment before carrying on.

A senior officer who was sat close to the mayor gave evidence that the mayor also said he had adjourned the meeting. But it could not be picked up on a video recording due to the level of noise.

Coun Akers-Belcher said he ordered Mr Fisher to leave upon advice after he failed to respond to a number of warnings about his conduct.

Mr Fisher told Mr Devlin he had not heard the warnings and left of his own accord after being approached by a security man, who said: “I have to put you out.”

But Mr Fisher accused Coun Akers-Belcher of being confrontational and rude from the start of the meeting when he said he would not stand for any bad behaviour.

But Coun Akers-Belcher said it was not meant to be provocative but so the proceedings would be respected.

Mr Fisher reacted to the investigations findings, saying: “If that meeting was within the standards of Hartlepool Borough Council then in my opinion they need to look at their standards.

“In my opinion, the meeting was the worst chairmanship I have ever seen.”

Coun Riddle added: “Irrespective of the findings of the report, literally hundreds of people witnessed the Mayor’s behaviour first hand and thousands more viewed the footage on the internet.”

Coun Akers-Belcher was unavailable for comment.