It has been a long five years since Shetland last went to the polls to elect its local council.
In May 2007 Morgan Goodlad was chief executive, Viking Energy had just signed the partnership deal to build a wind farm and Lord Reed had judged Shetland Islands Council to have been wrong to block the dredging of Lerwick harbour, a decision that cost the public purse more than £7 million.
Since then the global financial crisis has changed the face of public life everywhere, while in oil rich Shetland the SIC and Shetland Charitable Trust have both crashed into the buffers of public accountability.
Councillors well used to criticism have never been under such attack from island residents and public watchdogs.
Local affairs sank to an all time low around Up Helly Aa two years ago when new chief executive David Clark was subjected to a tawdry exposé of his private life by The Sun. Shortly afterwards the council negotiated a settlement that saw him leave office after less than a year, costing the public purse almost £300,000.
By this time the two biggest spending decisions had been made – building Mareel at North Ness, and not building a new Anderson High School at The Knab – both on the casting vote of the chairman.
Then the walls came tumbling down and the Accounts Commission came in to call Scotland’s wealthiest authority to account, drafting in local government dynamo Alistair Buchan from Orkney to sort the mess out.
The organisation whose future will be decided at the polls on 3 May bears little resemblance to its former incarnation. Meetings are highly structured, formal affairs; we now have a civic and a political leader; there is a cabinet-style decision making process; and top management has been transformed.
Key officials like finance chief Graham Johnston, education and social work head Hazel Sutherland and infrastructure boss Gordon Greenhill have gone, along with several other major players taking advantage of attractive redundancy packages.
Also going are at least half the current crop of councillors, who have decided, for various reasons, to throw in the towel. The brave 11 who stand again will soon find out how the public has judged their performance over the past half decade.
There is disquiet in these islands. The debate about budget cuts mirrors that taking place throughout the western world, tough austerity measures to rapidly rein in spending versus a less traumatic adjustment to harder times protecting public services, jobs and the economy, rather than the reserves in the bank or on the markets.
Rural communities are already gearing themselves up for another battle to protect their schools from closure; for some this will be the fifth onslaught since the turn of the millenium. Scalloway and Uyeasound have been lost, despite their excellent educational record.
And Viking Energy. The government’s planning judgment appears to have done nothing to calm the divisions on the issue, the victors claiming it guarantees Shetland’s economic survival, the losers believing the opposite and already grieving the environmental, social and emotional cost.
The 43 candidates deserve respect for having the courage to take up the challenge of dealing with the enormous challenges that lie ahead.
They represent a wide range of views and the choice the voters make on 3 May will decide how they take up and run with the policies they inherit from their predecessors.
Shetland News aims to present all 43 candidates on our election page to help you cast your vote. This is democracy…the decision is yours.
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