NORTHERN isles MP Alistair Carmichael has said Shetland Islands Council needs a change of culture at its most senior level to ensure there is no repeat of the crisis that has gripped the authority for the past six months.
However the Liberal Democrat MP held back from calling for anyone to resign, saying that it was a “systemic failure” in Scotland’s wealthiest council that allowed rules to be broken and ultimately led to a costly settlement to get rid of chief executive David Clark.
Mr Clark agreed to leave his £100,000 a year job this week after just eight months in the post, saying he had been hounded out of office by a media campaign against him.
However islanders are up in arms with the council for agreeing to a deal understood to leave him with a tax free lump sum of around £250,000, which will cost the authority closer to £500,000 after forking out for tax and legal fees.
Yesterday Mr Carmichael said the council had to work hard to restore the public’s confidence and should request the help of local government umbrella group COSLA to find an interim chief executive to get it back on its feet.
“I have never known the standing of the council in the community to be as low as it is today. That is exceptionally serious in any community, but particularly in Shetland where the council has such a dominant position,” he said.
“The council in Shetland is too big to be allowed to fail and the worry that I have is that it is failing.”
He said that the council was “kidding itself” if it thought that it had resolved all of its problems by getting rid of Mr Clark, after negotiating a deal with the help of COSLA chief executive Rory Mair.
“Dave Clark was a symptom that the council wasn’t functioning properly and after a lengthy discussion with Rory Mair, I took very strongly a message that there has been a failure of governance within the council.
“Councillors have not been doing the job councillors should do and senior officials have not been doing the job that senior officials should have been doing.”
Mr Carmichael first raised his concerns about the council when assistant chief executive Willie Shannon’s post was “deleted” without consultation last August, leading him and MSP Tavish Scott to submit a complaint to Audit Scotland.
Mr Shannon, he said, fell victim to a situation where different members of staff were not warning others that rules and procedures were being broken.
“I said at that time this was more than a staff matter. It was a situation where the checks and balances that exist within the system failed to operate.
“The relationship between councillors and senior officials has simply failed to function as it ought to. That has produced a dangerous situation which has now brought reputational damage to Shetland and which has brought a substantial financial loss to council tax payers in Shetland.
“If you think you can change that by putting in a new chief executive and changing nothing else then you fail to understand the true nature of the gravity of the problem.
“There is a need to move on, but people should not think that moving on is the same thing as sweeping everything under the carpet. There has to be a change of culture and the first example of that must be full disclosure of what has happened here.”
As a first step to rebuilding the public’s faith in the SIC, he said they should disclose everything that led up to the departure of Mr Clark and the full cost of his settlement.
“I think the payment was excessive and it’s clearly more than the community is prepared to accept and councillors should have been better tuned into the community before they agreed to make the payment.
“To re-establish the trust between the electors and the elected members, the council should publish the details of the agreement and explain why they felt they had no option to make the payment.”
Mr Carmichael suggested that the council involve the local government umbrella group COSLA in helping them find an interim chief executive, while a thorough inquiry is carried out into what has been going wrong at Lerwick Town Hall.
Local government watchdog Audit Scotland have been ordered to visit Shetland by the Accounts Commission to investigate the “deeper problems” within the authority.
The auditors share the local community’s concerns about the way the council has been run over the past few years, and intend to get to the heart of the problem when they send a team to Shetland.
This will take place after 18 March when the Accounts Commission holds its next meeting, but they intend to publish a report into their findings by the end of May.
Mr Carmichael said: “A culture change has to enter the town hall that says the law applies to them as well as everyone else. That means rules and procedures are there to be followed and they can’t be avoided simply on the basis that it helps you achieve a certain end that you think might be desirable at a certain point in time.
“Audit Scotland should unpick everything that has happened here to make sure that there is a full examination of what has gone on and where the mistakes have been made. The nature of those mistakes should be made clear to the public and actions should flow from whatever recommendations are necessary.
“There has been a collective failure of the council here and while it might placate some people’s immediate anger, simply getting someone’s head on a plate is not going to address the very profound failings that I see within the system.
“But the priority has to be to get some stability into the single most important organisation in Shetland so that it’s able to do what it’s there to do, which is to provide local services.”
Meanwhile the MP said that he did believe that individual councillors had been trying to do their best for the local community.
“There is a lot of criticism of Shetland’s councillors at the moment for what they have done, but by and large I still think our councillors are well motivated.
“They have got things badly wrong and that needs to be accounted for, but these are people who have been trying to do the best for their community.”