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SIC finance chief retires early

SHETLAND Islands Council’s widely respected head of finance Graham Johnston has announced he intends to take early retirement at the end of next month.

Mr Johnston is considered “a safe pair of hands” at Scotland’s wealthiest local authority, which has been under considerable pressure from outside watchdogs in the past two years.

Mr Johnston joined the council in 1981 as a trainee accountant, working his way up to the top job in finance over 30 years, during which he has seen the council become the only authority to achieve debt free status.

His department came under criticism over the past few years from the council’s outside auditors Audit Scotland, who expressed increasing frustration at the refusal to group the council’s accounts with those of Shetland Charitable Trust.

Mr Johnston has always remained a staunch defender of the council’s position and said on Wednesday that he believed grouping the accounts “made no sense whatsoever”. He added: “I have had no success in persuading Audit Scotland and the Accounts Commission so maybe it’s best for someone else to take on that role.”

Speaking on BBC Radio Shetland, Mr Johnston said that the past two years of scrutiny and criticism from the local government watchdogs had been “a trying time” and probably contributed to his decision to take early retirement.

He said that he had approached chief executive Alistair Buchan in October and was grateful that his request to leave the council had been accepted.

Convener Sandy Cluness praised Mr Johnston as “a very widely respected finance chief”.

“Over the years councillors acknowledged his professionalism and were very grateful for his ability to put technical financial information into a format that was easy to understand. The thing that struck me about him was his clear desire to always do his best for the good of Shetland,” Mr Cluness said.

His 10 years at the helm of the finance department have been particularly turbulent with two crashes on the global markets following the 9/11 attack and the more recent banking crisis.

His consistent advice to hold a steady course helped councillors weather the storm while the SIC’s substantial investments recovered.

On Wednesday Mr Johnston said: “I’ve appreciated the opportunity to work in the council’s finance service for almost 30 years.

“It has often been challenging but also rewarding. I’ve worked with some excellent colleagues and have had the chance to contribute to some important deals with, for example, the oil and gas industry, as well as contributing to the long term planning and management of the Shetland community reserves.

“The council has gone through a time of turbulence, and now needs to make substantial changes to face future challenges. I felt the time was right for me to move on and let others address those long term issues, and I’m pleased that the council have agreed to my request for early retirement.”

He said that he intends to pursue personal interests, including “messing around with my old cars”, though he did dismiss suggestions that he might stand for the council in 2012.