COUNCILLORS in Shetland have acknowledged that Britain’s northernmost local authority let people down during the past year when it employed David Clark as its chief executive.
However they hope to address any shortcomings once they have appointed an interim chief executive in the next few weeks.
The admissions come in a statement to the Accounts Commission, one of 19 submitted to the local government watchdog ahead of its public inquiry into events at Shetland Islands Council during the past year.
A five strong panel will hear evidence from selected witnesses next Monday and Tuesday at Lerwick Town Hall.
The hearing was called after the council was roundly criticised by Scotland’s Controller of Audit over the way it recruited, managed and paid off Mr Clark, who left office last February after just nine months in post with a £285,000 tax free pay off.
The 44 year old former chief executive has made his own submission to the public hearing defending his handling of his role and attacking a selected group of councillors, particularly Jonathan Wills who he accuses of running a “hate campaign” against him.
Mr Clark says that he felt he still had the support of SIC convener Sandy Cluness in early January, but this suddenly changed following the publication of a two page article about his private life in The Sun newspaper on Saturday 23 January.
The following Monday Mr Clark says the convener held an emergency meeting with senior colleagues and staff, to which he was not invited, concerning a complaint made one month earlier by six councillors about his performance.
He said that he “came to understand that the convener had called the emergency meeting to escalate the complaint into the disciplinary process because his Up Helly Aa squad had been giving him a hard time over the Sun article and telling him to act. He had not read the article and refused to do so”.
He added that Mr Cluness was advised by council lawyers he had no basis to invoke disciplinary proceedings.
“The convener questioned why I was staying and didn’t leave, making it clear I was to know that he was amenable to a settlement and that SIC would agree to my legal fees for reaching such,” Mr Clark states.
“I left for home knowing the convenor wanted me gone – because of his Up Helly Aa’s
response to an inaccurate Sun article.”
That day Mr Clark says he decided to resign because the impact the newspaper article was having on his loved ones.
“I decided that I was prepared to tolerate this situation no longer. I took the decision that I was no longer prepared to be chief executive of SIC in such circumstances and decided to take action against the council.”
In their collective submission, SIC councillors tell the Accounts Commission that they “acknowledge and regret” any actions on the council’s part that led to the final settlement with Mr Clark.
They admit that best practice was not carried out when it came to appraising Mr Clark when he was in post, and say it was “regrettable” that normal procedures were not followed when the post of assistant chief executive Willie Shannon had his post axed.
The treatment of Mr Shannon is the main subject of submissions from local MP Alistair Carmichael and MSP Tavish Scott, who both refer to unprecedented levels of anger in the local community about the council’s behaviour during Mr Clark’s tenure.
Three councillors have made submissions to the inquiry. Jonathan Wills and Gary Robinson focus on the mismanagement of large capital projects, the treatment of Mr Shannon, the council’s governance and disciplinary process. Councillor Gussie Angus has endorsed Dr Wills’ statement.
Councillor Bill Manson has made two submissions, including one as chairman of Shetland Charitable Trust. He refers to the statutory limitations on how much the SIC can pay a chief executive which limits the calibre of candidate they can employ.
The council’s senior management team has submitted an extensive outline of their commitment to improve working practices within the authority and to work with the new interim chief executive.
Acknowledging the “relationship difficulties” referred to in the Controller of Audit’s report, management say: “It is a testament to the commitment of the council’s staff that they are not often distracted by any relationship difficulties.”
The council unions’ collective submission points out that the situation at the SIC over the period in question was made worse by the public pronouncements of councillors.
“The council has dedicated staff who want to provide public services efficiently. To some extent they have been prevented from doing so because of the very public uproar created here since summer 2009.
“It would do no harm if councillors kept in mind the detrimental effect that their
disputes can have on the smooth running of local government,” they say.
Mr Shannon himself submits his version of events surrounding the deletion of his post last August, saying that the entire affair has had a “detrimental impact” on his career “despite the fact that there have never at any point in this process been any allegations or accusations of wrongdoing on my part”.
He added that four months after he formally requested a secondment outside the council, the matter had not been dealt with and will be discussed on 30 June, the day after the public hearing finishes.
Staffing problems are also raised by Les Sinclair who submits that there have been more grievance and disciplinary hearings at the council since 1 April this year than there were in the whole of the last financial year.
“In my view, this hearing should thoroughly investigate this aspect of the Controller Of
Audit’s report,” he says.
Anti Viking Energy campaign group Sustainable Shetland warn of the lack of accountability regarding the council’s involvement in the wind farm project and the “irreconcilable conflict of interest” of councillors and trustees of Shetland Charitable Trust.
North Isles Forum raise their concerns about councillors’ failure to scrutinise information presented by their own officials, pointing to errors in reports presented by education staff in their Blueprint for Education proposals to close small schools.
And independent caterer Mike Sage complains about the way the contract to run the café at Clickimin Leisure Complex was awarded.
Lerwick resident Kathy Greaves calls for convener Cluness to stand down, west side resident Vic Thomas complains about the chief executive’s contract of employment and David Clark’s father Ian Clark, the SIC’s first ever chief of staff, bewails the state of the council he once ran and the “sensationalism” of modern reporting.
The Accounts Commission has yet to list the people who it intends to call as witnesses, though it is likely to include the local MP, MSP, senior councillors and senior SIC staff, as well as former chief executive David Clark.
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