A councillor who backed calls for a vote of no confidence in the leader of West Sussex County Council has been expelled from the Conservative group while another has been suspended.
Heidi Brunsdon (Imberdown) and Andrew Lea (Lindfield & High Weald), along with Joy Dennis (Hurstpierpoint & Bolney) and Andrew Baldwin (Horsham East), added their voices to those of opposition members against Louise Goldsmith in June.
The call was voted down but came after the council’s children’s services were rated inadequate by Ofsted in a damning report.
At the time, Mrs Goldsmith would not comment on the rebellion among the Tory ranks, saying: “In the end we have freedom to speak and if they chose to speak that’s their option.
Now though, Mrs Brunsdon has been expelled from the Tory group, Mr Lea has been suspended for six months, Mrs Dennis has been ‘censured’ and we have been told that the fate of Mr Baldwin, who has been unwell, will be discussed at a later date.
Mr Baldwin was applauded by opposition members during the call for a vote of no confidence in Mrs Goldsmith, when he said it was time for a new leader.
He also suggested that he and others had been removed from scrutiny committees because they were ‘not nodding donkeys and not afraid to ask questions’.
And Mrs Brunsdon said there was a ‘toxic culture of contempt’ at the county council for those who ‘speak up’.
The Labour group said Mrs Brunsdon and Mr Lea had been ‘punished for speaking out, at a time every councillor should be’, calling the action ‘over the top’ and ‘heavy handed’.
Both are also Conservative Mid Sussex district councillors.
Dr James Walsh, leader of the Lib Dem opposition, said: “I salute the courage of Andrew Lea and Heidi Brunsdon, and also of Andrew Baldwin and Joy Dennis for speaking out and/or voting for what they believe in.
“They are not alone, as Mid-Sussex MP Sir Nicholas Soames has also spoken out against the top leadership at County Hall. Is he also going to be expelled or suspended?
“It is pretty disgraceful in a free democracy that elected councillors can be censured and treated in this way merely for speaking the truth.
“With the gross failures of political leadership shown in the Ofsted childrens’ service rating of inadequate, and the same inadequate by HM Fire Inspectorate of the Fire and Rescue Service, and cutbacks and low morale in adult care, is it any wonder that these are legitimate matters of concern.
“Liberal Democrats are calling for the scrapping of the autocratic cabinet system, and reverting to a committee system where all councillors make the decisions.”
A spokesman for the county council said Mrs Brunsdon and Mr Lea would form the Independent Conservative Group, with Mrs Brunsdon as leader.
When asked about action being taken against the four and the reasons behind it, Conservative group chairman Paul High said: “We do not take any disciplinary action lightly or readily.
“However when there have been serious breaches of group rules which resulted in a number of complaints by group members it is incumbent on me to ensure these are fully investigated by the vice chairman in line with our group rules.
“We have notified central office and the south east area office as you would expect.
“After a thorough investigation the findings were brought to the Conservative group, after much consideration of all the information by the group this has resulted in decisions as follows.
“Heidi Brunsdon expelled. Andrew Lea suspended for a period of six calendar months until January 1 2020. Joy Dennis received a censure.
“I must stress that each person involved was given the option of a right of reply.
“This is a very rare event for this group but one that was deemed necessary by the Conservative group members.
“We now move forward, there is much work to do on children’s and fire and rescue services and a challenging budget to prepare, we need a period of stability and consolidation in order to focus on these important issues.”
He made no comment about Mr Baldwin.
In a joint statement Mrs Brunsdon and Mr Lea said: “We were motivated by the need to represent the most vulnerable in our society that the children’s service is failing, rather than confirming to a set of confusing rules which serve to restrict councillors from speaking and voting according to their conscience and in the best interests of their residents.”