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Trust votes through new governance plans

SHETLAND Charitable Trust has passed through controversial new governance proposals, which could result in the £230m fund no longer having any elected representatives.

The arrangements, which include reducing the number of councillor trustees from seven to a maximum of four, were signed off at the trust’s special meeting at Islesburgh Community Centre in Lerwick on Thursday evening.

Councillor Allison Duncan failed in an attempt to reject the plans, with only fellow elected member Andrea Manson supporting his case.

They were outvoted by nine to two, with Malcolm Bell and Tom Macintyre unable to attend the meeting.

Charities regulator OSCR earlier this month gave the governance proposals a clean bill of health and suggested the trust will be administered “more effectively”, despite receiving nearly 500 representations from the public against the plans.

Shetland Islands Council indicated in June last year that it no longer wished to put forward any councillor trustees to avoid any conflict of interest scenarios, meaning that there could be no elected members on the trust in the future.

Councillor Allison Duncan: 'a sad day for democracy in these islands'

At the meeting on Thursday, Shetland South councillor Duncan said it was a “sad day for democracy in these islands” and those who founded the trust in 1976 must be “turning in their graves” at the thought of the charity losing elected members.

An impassioned Duncan continued to say that the SCT was going against public opinion, adding that trustees currently have a “very low” reputation.

He suggested that the trust could use its new powers to “restore its reputation” by asking for a report to be prepared on how it could hold direct elections when vacancies occur.

In May last year trustees voted by eight to two to approve the proposals, which also allows a person living outwith Shetland to be appointed if no suitable candidate can be found locally.

It gives trustees the power to make changes to the trust deed if they are approved by 75 per cent of the board.

Chairman of the SCT audit and governance advisory committee Keith Massey told the meeting that the lengthy process gave people a “fair hearing”, and he reiterated that the proposals were previously voted for by a clear majority.

He said it was “wrong” to rebuff the plans at this stage and added that while he understood there was some “angst” in the public over the new arrangements, he lamented “personal attacks” which have been made against some trustees.

Lerwick South councillor Amanda Westlake said the process had essentially been ongoing since the trust’s last reorganisation in 2012 and while it “can’t please everybody”, it has been “honest, fair and open”.

Manson, however, said it was “essential” that there was some sort of public accountability for the trust.

Trustee Keith Massey: 'fair hearing'

“This is not £20 you’re speaking about,” she said.

Massey responded by saying the trust is held accountable by OSCR, while he added that there was an unfair notion that selected members may not be as effective in doing the best for the public than elected representatives.

He added that a campaign run by newspaper The Shetland Times, which attracted hundreds of representations against the trust’s plans, didn’t offer the public a yes/no option.

Councillor Drew Ratter said that Duncan’s motion appeared to reject the trust’s previous agreement, rather than Thursday’s resolution.

He said the new way forward might not be “ideal”, but it appears to be under the direction of today’s Scottish law.

The current governance ensures seven of the 15 trustees come from Shetland Islands Council, with the other eight appointed.

The new arrangement will see a maximum of 15 and a minimum of nine trustees sit on the board.

Former vice-chairman Jonathan Wills, who attended the meeting as a member of the public, said afterwards that he would continue his attempts to see the SCT feature a majority of elected members.

He said he was “disappointed but not surprised” that only two members voted against approving the “foolish” plans.

“This is like a crowd of musk oxen forming a protective circle. And you know what’s in the middle of a circle of musk oxen,” Wills said.

“They’ve ignored the wishes and clearly expressed intentions of the people of Shetland and their elected representatives. I haven’t seen a single candidate in the current election, not one, who have said they think appointed selected trustees are a superior way to run it.”

Wills added that his vocal protests against the SCT’s direction isn’t an attack on any trustees, but rather an argument against the wider control of the trust.

“I shall be continuing to take the issue up as a private citizen. This is not over. This is very far from over,” he said.

“The people of Shetland will not tolerate this. This is not a personal attack on any of the trustees. Nobody questions their bonafides, their public spirit, their desire to use the trust funds for the benefit of the people of Shetland.

“The argument is about the ultimate control of nearly half of Shetland’s oil money, and that was never intended to pass out of public control.”

In a statement released after the meeting, SCT chairman Bobby Hunter said: “I’m pleased that the trust has resolved to implement the new governance arrangements that were voted for by a decisive majority of trustees on 12 May last year following the clear approval of OSCR.

“We can now move ahead with these changes which the charity regulator acknowledges will improve the administration of the trust.”