One of the most respected and longest-serving Horsham district councillors Liz Kitchen confirmed this afternoon (Monday March 31) that she will sign the County Times’ Free Speech Charter.
Her intervention will send shock-waves through the council’s ruling Tory group which seems to have ignored the Charter ever since it was launched by the newspaper in a bid to secure more open local government.
Despite each councillor receiving an invitation to sign more than a week ago, there is growing speculation that they have been told to snub it.
Mrs Kitchen’s commitment to the Charter came shortly after another major Tory backer emerged.
Deputy Chairman (political) of the Horsham Conservative Association Simon Torn - who is also a councillor for Roffey South - today threw his weight behind the initiative.
Mrs Kitchen, a councillor for Rusper and Colgate said: “I have no problem with signing it.
“You have laid down the challenge and I’m more than happy to pick up that challenge.
“I fully support what you are doing but personally I’m only doing what I have always done.”
Mrs Kitchen and Mr Torn’s statements will give the campaign for more transparent local government a huge boost.
Now four party big-hitters are committed. Last week, the council’s youngest councillor Josh Murphy and Council Vice Chairman Christian Mitchell pledged their support.
The Charter - which already has the backing of the Lib Dem minority group on the district and county councils as well as UKIP nationally and locally - has been launched in response to claims that the ruling Tory group at Horsham whip votes, make key decisions in secret group meetings, and vet letters and articles sent to the County Times.
It follows the unprecedented deselection of Mr Mitchell as chairman elect in a whipped vote. He said he had paid the price for articulating his residents’ concerns about massive development in North Horsham.
The Charter states: “I undertake to speak, write and vote on behalf of my constituents without fear or favour of party discipline. If I am a member of a political party, I will respect its values and honour its pre-election manifesto pledges - but I will always put first the people I am elected to serve.”
Future candidates of any political party and none are also invited to be signatories - and two Independent candidates for the 2015 poll have also supported it.
Mr Powling welcomed the announcement by Mr Torn and Mrs Kitchen.
He said: “The public has become increasingly disengaged from local politics because so much of the real decision-making is held in secret.
“Single party cabinet meetings, often with informal private sessions, have added to this sense of public disquiet.
“When you have major issues like determining the Preferred Strategy for local planning unless you debate everything openly and frankly, the public rightly become suspicious of how contentious decisions are achieved.
“In the end, it is wholly counter-productive. Even if there is no cause for concern, privacy breeds both contempt and groundless fears.
“The vast outpouring of public support for the County Times’ Charter and our STop Secret campaign demonstrates that residents want to be treated better.”
He congratulated Mr Torn and Mrs Kitchen.
“They are courageous and honourable trail blazers - and the County Times enormously respects their principled statements.”
He added that respect for Mrs Kitchen was such that her comments could prove enormously influential in bringing about the kind of change the public clearly wanted to see.