A councillor who was once told by a judge he was unworthy of holding public office after cheating on his expenses looks set to achieve a remarkable reversal of fortunes by being handed the most elevated role on a local authority.
Conservative members of North Yorkshire County Council applauded enthusiastically after voting Independent councillor Robert Heseltine in as the authority’s vice-chairman, ahead of automatically becoming the council’s chairman next year.
The chairman represents and promotes the council at all civic and ceremonial occasions as well as chairs the full council meetings.
However, the meeting at County Hall in Northallerton had heard debate over whether appointing the long-serving Tory councillor would cause the authority reputational damage.
In 2000, after serving on various councils for 25 years, he admitted 12 charges of false accounting and was ordered to carry out 240 hours of community service and pay back more than £1,498 he had falsely claimed over three years up to March 1999.
At the time, Judge Peter Fox told Cllr Heseltine, who was chairman of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority: “You are unworthy of public office because you are not to be trusted.”
However, the meeting was told the Skipton East division member’s behaviour since the conviction had been “exemplary” and that he had dedicated his life to serving the community.
While almost all of the council’s Conservative councillors voted for Cllr Heseltine to be handed the role, in a move that broke normal protocol many opposition councillors did not.
Independent councillor John Blackie told the council chamber Cllr Heseltine’s appointment would tarnish the reputation and integrity of the authority.
He said: “These events threw the fledgling Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority into turmoil at the time and remain etched firmly on the memory of many people I represent in the Upper Dales.
“While I recognise Cllr Heseltine has served the sentence he was handed at Middlesbrough Combined Court and his conviction is regarded as spent, the memories of what took place cannot be rubbed away so easily and I believe it is sending out entirely the wrong message to be appointing him as vice-chairman, especially with politicians at a national, regional and local level looked upon to provide leadership and under ever increasing scrutiny.”
However, the council’s former leader, Councillor John Weighell, said while members cherished democratic accountability, no one was more democratically accountable than Cllr Heseltine, as he had been re-elected to councils 14 times since being convicted.
He said: “This council has a very long tradition that sets it apart from many other councils which is that it has never sought to embarrass any member or make any political attacks on the personal circumstances of any member that has fallen into any kind of personal problem.
“As elected members we should and indeed must never seek to criticise the majority view of the electorate whether or not we personally agree with that result. It is our job to defend democracy not attack it.”
After being elected, Cllr Heseltine told the council chamber he understood that some members had doubts, but added: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Cllr Heseltine said he recognised “that we are human and we have human frailties” and occasionally through life people could make errors of judgement.
He said: “I sailed some choppy waters in 1999 and 2000. I steadfastly refused to defend myself and I know one thing I am absolutely confident of. When I do make my bed eventually, my conscience will be absolutely clear.”
Stuart Minting, Local Democracy Reporting Service