THERE was a mixed response from candidates for Thursday’s local government elections on whether private council seminars should be held in public.
Retiring councillor Jonathan Wills’ bid to open up members’ seminars to the public was emphatically outvoted 17-2 when he raised the issue at the last full SIC meeting before the elections.
We asked all 32 candidates: “Do you think Shetland Islands Council currently holds too many private seminars, and would you be in favour of opening these up to the public?”
There was a varied reaction from the 25 respondents, with many of those who sat on the last council reiterating that no decisions are made in private seminars.
Malcolm Bell: “No. There is a lot of misunderstanding about this. Occasional seminars are held to allow councillors to receive training and information on areas they require detailed knowledge. Seminars are, emphatically, not used for scrutiny, consideration of council reports or decision-making.
“Scrutiny, consideration of reports and decision-making are always done in public, unless there is, exceptionally, a legal reason for holding it in private, for example a report containing commercially sensitive information. One other point: I think seminars get confused with the practice in most councils and all parliaments, of political groups meeting, in private, to consider upcoming agendas and reports.
“The groups decide, in private, how to vote at the forthcoming meeting and will then instruct and ‘whip’ their respective members into voting the way they have decided, in private, to vote. This does not happen in Shetland.”
John Fraser: “A basic tenant to democracy is an open, transparent decision making process which is subject to public scrutiny. If elected I will move for an end to the current practice of closed council meetings.”
Stephen Leask: “I am favour of transparency as we must be open and honest with the Shetland electorate.
“In the past I have been to many meetings and conferences, and feel it is important for discussions and debates to be in an environment where people feel free to express themselves uninhibitedly, where not just the verbose and vocal are at the forefront, so the issues are properly prepared and thus expressed to the public.”
No response received from Thomas Williamson.
Peter Campbell: “In the last council seminars were frequently poorly attended by members so they did not become the policy forming forum which has been portrayed. In a council with political groupings it is accepted that there are individual group meetings where the members have the opportunity to hold discussions in private, with or without officials being present. Where all members are independent this approach is not possible.”
Frances Valente: “I do not think there is a case for so many private seminars. I understand why some councillors want to be able to discuss complicated matters out of the public gaze, but to be honest they ought to be able to ask questions about these issues in public. Are they concerned that they would look foolish? Is it because they haven’t fully understood all the background to the subject?
“If this is the case they should have done their homework before going to the meeting. Secret meetings give rise to the uncomfortable feeling that there is something to hide. If the council was being managed properly there wouldn’t be anything to hide.”
Beatrice Wishart: “If the purpose of seminars is for councillors to gather information, or to be informed on specific issues, and as a consequence councillors attend committee and council meetings with a better understanding of the subjects up for debate, and no decisions are made at these seminars, then I see no reason for them to be opened up. I don’t know how many seminars are held so feel unable to comment on whether or not there are ‘too many’.”
No responses received from Cecil Smith or Amanda Westlake.
Robbie McGregor: “I believe that as many meetings as possible should be recorded and videos available online. My only exception would be matters of commercial sensitivity. I note that seminars are partly training and I am relaxed about them being conducted in private as long as the decision making process is transparent.”
George Smith: “The vast majority of council decisions are made in public and all are made at meetings that are properly advertised. That is the way it should always be. The council has traditionally been an independent council and free from political groupings forming pre-determined positions, and that has been a strength generally, though it does put an expectation on each and every councillor to fully acquaint themselves with all the facts before making important decisions. Seminars have a role in effecting this understanding.
“Very often these could be held in public as the information contained is not of a confidential nature at all. However no decisions are made at seminars, they are merely preparatory meetings, so whether they would be of lasting interest to the public only time would tell.”
No response received from Allison Duncan.
Julie Buchan: “I don’t agree with private seminars, it only creates speculation and mistrust. Far better to be open and honest, so I would definitely be in favour of opening them up to the public.”
Mark Burgess: “No, and no. There may be scope for the introduction of public-facing seminars but this would be a substantial additional workload on officers. This very question arises as the product of a near-three hour meeting, at the conclusion of which one member postured that this was, in his opinion, an issue and this, in the media-facing instance of the meeting, outshone all the previous valuable content of the meeting, in the last fifteen minutes.
“Journalists could not reasonably be expected to effectively relay the balanced content of every gathering of every councillor grouping that happens within the chamber as formal meetings or seminars and this instance perhaps proves that to be the case. To paraphrase the maxim, it may be the case that what people believe to be true is more important than what is actually true and in this case, unfortunately, the public have been led to believe that there is a fault to correct but I do not believe this to be the case and nor did the other 16 of 19 councillors present on the day.
“It was for shame that this was subsequently portrayed as the swansong of the outgoing SIC, as opposed to all the major achievements of the preceding five years. In rhetorical terms, if a councillor ever wished to capture the limelight or pursue a personal opinion, suggesting a motion for a new roof for the Scalloway Castle would be likely to capture more media interest than, say, the achievement of a clean bill of health from Audit Scotland, with the former being spurious and the latter being essential for the public to understand.”
Brian Nugent: “Not clear what is meant by a private seminar.”
Davie Sandison: “Broadly speaking, I am not in favour of decisions being made in private, unless there are clear commercial or confidential matters that would damage the interests of other parties or individuals under consideration. It is important to allow councillors to have space to consider some matters in private, as they work through the development of proposals, particularly as this often revolves around potential cuts to services and hence cuts to actual jobs within the council – often it would be difficult to protect the anonymity of individual staff who may be affected directly by such decisions and I therefore have no difficulty in understanding the need for such discussion to be held in private.
“I am, however, in favour of more debate taking place around whatever proposals arrive at committee stage, as not all councillors (including me) are able to spend time in seminars.”
Ian Scott: “I have no idea how many private seminars are held, but to my mind one is too many. I understand the need for commercial confidentiality and private discourse, but our public have every right to hear what our councillors are being told and what is being said.
“We are not living behind the iron curtain and as such, what can be said by our officials to our councillors can also be said by these self-same officials to the people. I believe that all council meetings, not just seminars, should be open to the public, again with the usual restrictions on privacy and confidentiality. Any democracy relies on accountability and trust and as such we all have to know what is going on. As an example, what is going on at the moment regarding the White House?”
Lynsay Cunningham: “The council is not an elite club all meetings and workshops should be open for the public to attend. The meetings should also be streamed live to allow individuals to watch without the need to travel to Lerwick.”
Alec Priest: “Primarily SIC councillors are public servants, to be a servant to the public and have private meetings that the public are not privy too? This should not be allowed. The Shetland public should be aware of all the facts and decisions that are being made, the dilemmas and decisions that the SIC are faced with affect us all, we need to know.”
Duncan Simpson: “To me it appears that there may well be too many private seminars. I think it is important for the public to see how decisions are being reached so I would question why so much is discussed in private when perhaps all but the most sensitive issues could be made public.”
Ryan Thomson: “I do. I fully understand that some meetings need to be held behind closed doors for numerous reasons, however if there are any meetings that can be held in public, they should be. I believe a reason for keeping these ‘behind-closed-doors seminars’ was to ‘offer a safe place for councillors to ask questions they might not otherwise ask’.
“This can surely be done outwith public meetings. Being a councillor can very often be a thankless task, however they are elected to represent their communities and stand up and say what needs said on behalf of their constituents. Scrutiny from the public and the press, quite rightly, comes as part of the package.”
No response received from Cecil Hughson.
Emma Macdonald: “More openness is preferable but there are circumstances where this is not possible.”
Andrea Manson: “Yes, I voted for that before and will be pursuing this in the next council if I am returned.”
No responses received from Alastair Cooper or Isobel Johnson.
Steven Coutts: “I thought it inappropriate for an outgoing council, at its last meeting, to decide how the council elected in 2017 should operate. As a hard working councillor for the last five years acting on behalf of the community, I am somewhat saddened by some of the comments and apparent lack of trust in councillors, around this issue.
“In terms of seminars I believe this is something the new council can consider as part of new councillor induction and getting to know each other. There is a lot to learn as a new councillor and I think it is important that new councillors have the opportunity to consider the best option. I am clear that I find seminars to be very useful for sharing information. I am open to consider options but only on the basis that we do not damage the opportunity to share information.”
Catherine Hughson: “I’m against the present system of seminars; all debates on matters affecting the public service should be held in public unless there are sound legal reasons for not doing so.”
Debra Nicolson: “If councillor seminars were held in the public eye it would make our elected members more accountable and open and it would change public perception of their councillors. While out canvassing I have been told many times that councillors are secretive and not in touch with the community.
“I realise that votes are not cast in such meetings but opening up seminars and generally having better PR around council decisions would help build the relationship between the council and the community.”
Gary Robinson: “No, I don’t. I think seminars are a key part of the good governance of the council. This fact is acknowledged by the Accounts Commission and Audit Scotland. Seminars are NOT decision-making meetings and no scrutiny takes place in such forums. It’s commonplace in councils elsewhere in the country for political groups to meet to decide what their voting intentions are ahead of a formal meeting but our seminars are merely intended for information sharing. That said, I think some seminars, for example community planning seminars, should be opened up to the public.”
Theo Smith: “Seminars are a very important means of bringing members up to speed on a subject, an issue or project and to provide additional information, in many cases, of a sensitive or confidential nature. This council has held seminars when asked for by members or when suggested by officials.
“I feel comfortable with these meetings and can categorically say that at no time are any decisions formulated or made, as some would have you believe. Decisions are taken at committee or full council. It is an invaluable forum which I hope continues in the new council and, like the vast majority of my present colleagues, I would not be in favour of opening these meetings to the public.”
Ian Tinkler: “There must be full public and press scrutiny unless confidentiality is imperative.”