CHAOS erupted in the council chamber last night after a meeting was abandoned on a black day for democracy in South Tyneside.
At one point, a council executive threatened to call the police to evict the packed public gallery, after onlookers refused to leave under the orders of the Mayor.
Meanwhile, a leaked e-mail from council leader Paul Waggott to colleagues, obtained by the Gazette this week, saw him brand those who'd submitted questions to the meeting as "lunatics".
This morning he issued a full apology saying that he'd sent the e-mail "in the heat of the moment".
Click here to read Coun Waggott's apology.
But opponent Coun Jane Branley called the e-mail "outrageous".
Last night's fiery full council meeting saw members of the public verbally sparring with councillors for the duration of the four-hour debate. An extraordinary meeting – held before the debate – saw three motions put forward by Independent and Progressive councillors.
The first, a move to review election security, was ruled out of order, leading to a series of outbursts from the public gallery.
Local businessman Ahmed Khan shouted: "You're an absolute disgrace, the lot of you, especially you, Brian Scott (the council's solicitor). A so-called apolitical officer of the council. You're a public servant and don't you forget it."
The public gallery was rowdy from the start, and the Mayor, Coun Tracey Dixon, was forced to pound her gavel dozens of times, but her efforts failed to bring order to the chamber.
At times, the crowd was stoked up by councillors, some of whom muttered insults under their breath, or turned round to criticise specific members of the public individually.
Then, during a debate on a rumour that a sitting councillor had been arrested, a confrontation between Coun Audrey McMillan and some members of the public gallery began, and led to Coun Dixon demanding the public gallery be cleared.
Despite threats of police action, the 20 or so remaining members of the public refused to move, and the Mayor abandoned the rest of the meeting.
Coun Linda Waggott, referring to the public gallery, said: "If this is what's called democracy, I don't want to be part of it."
Coun Nancy Maxwell, added: "If the rest of the borough had seen this meeting, we would have put back local democracy 100 years."
She then went on to blame the "laughing hyenas in the corner," turning to the public gallery.
Earlier, the Gazette obtained a leaked e-mail from council leader Coun Waggott to colleagues ahead of the controversial meeting.
In a message dated January 15, the leader of the council told senior council executives and some Cabinet colleagues: "I see the lunatics see (sic) trying to take over the asylum.
"This is getting stupid. I'm sorry but there must be a way of stopping this abuse of the system."
The message was fired off from his council Blackberry device, after he was told that eight more questions had been submitted to yesterday's meeting by members of the public.
During last night's meeting, he referred to the roster of questions as a "scam" to make people lose interest in the debate and walk out.
Today Coun Waggott issued a statement apologising for his e-mailed comments.
But leader of the Alliance, Coun Jane Branley said: "This is outrageous, and shows that attempts to gag the public are coming right from the top.
"Full council is the only opportunity I have to ask for information on an issue, and to be given the answer on record in a public place. I'm furious about this.
"For the leader of the council to brand members of the public and elected members as lunatics taking over the asylum is absolutely shameful."