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Features / First-time councillors reflect on one year in the job

From left to right: Tom Morton, Liz Peterson, Bryan Peterson.

IT WAS just over one year ago that voters went to the polls to decide who should become Shetland’s latest batch of councillors.

Five had already been confirmed, given that there were not enough candidates to hold elections in the North and North Isles wards.

But the day after the vote, on 6 May, many candidates – both new and old faces – were elected after the votes were counted.

Currently there are nine first-time councillors in the chamber – including two through subsequent by-elections – as well as the returning Gary Robinson, who was previously an elected member between 2007 and 2017.

So what has that first year been like for the new councillors, and has life in the chamber lived up to expectations?

In the Shetland North ward Tom Morton, representing Labour, was elected unopposed given only three candidates put themselves forward for the three seats.

Shetland North councillor Tom Morton.

He was fairly frank about his first year as a councillor – saying there was an “incredible tedium of endless and unnecessary meetings”. “I have become allergic to committees,” Morton said.

He also suggested there is a “secrecy and lack of transparency” at play in parts of the decision making process.

“The temptation as a councillor is to see yourself as a servant of the council, rather than your constituents,” he said.

“There’s been a sense that councillors have to be educated by officials and learn to accept the structures and processes of the SIC. And it’s true that officials deliver services, for the most part effectively.

“But officials need to remember that the people of Shetland, represented by councillors, are their employers.

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“There has been a plethora of briefings, seminars and training for councillors by officials.

“But I sometimes feel, there are areas where it should be the other way around. There are fields of council activity where it sometimes seems that basic competence, insight, sometimes just staffing time is lacking. It’s what happens in a small, insular, inward looking organisation, protective of its authority, status, reputation and departmental ‘little kingdoms’.

“The secrecy and lack of transparency is endemic and encouraged by officials. Councillors can seem like an inconvenience.

“And the whole decision making process involving pre-meetings, the policy and resources ‘Magisterium’ as Cllr Scott calls it, unreported seminars and weekly unminuted and closed members’ ‘informal’ meetings goes against every political and democratic instinct. And normality in every other Scottish council.

“I take comfort from a few effective actions: heating and insulation installed here, some response to utility supply there, action on transport, making noise which is sometimes heard. Being able to afford not to charge for funeral services is an unofficial spin off benefit.

“But I regret the mistakes I’ve been unable to prevent. The looming disasters at the Knab and the Fair Isle Ferry saga. The misguided obsession with fixed links.

“The terrible micro-managing of departmental budgets to appease the retired, often failed fatcats of the Accounts Commission. No universal free school meals.”

But he added: “Sometimes, we should trust our officials. I do feel sorry for the able and effective council executives, indeed entire departments, circumscribed by budgetary constraints and the sometimes dumbfounding inability of councillors to understand what they’re being told. Or support sensible executive advice out of stubborn ignorance and arrogance.”

Shetland West councillor Liz Peterson Photo: Shetland News

Out in the West Liz Peterson was the comfortable winner in her ward, which has reduced to two members following electoral tweaks.

She said being an elected member has been a “huge learning curve, and I still have a lot to learn”.

“I think that before you become a councillor you don’t realise all of the things that goes on behind the scenes, such as all the work that the officers do,” Peterson said.

“You have this view that ‘oh yeah, I could do that, I can get this done’ – and then when you actually look into it there’s a lot more behind it, to try and get things achieved.

“I think that a lot of it is legal or statutory requirements that things have to be done. That can sometimes be a little bit frustrating, but it’s things we just have to do.”

She said a key reason behind why she stood for election was to do her bit for the community, saying she is “there to put forward the views of the constituents” in the west.

Peterson said she does not feel the council is led by officers. “There have been a few decisions made in the chamber recently where members have decided against the recommendation by officers.”

One example of this was when Peterson successfully managed to move a proposed road upgrade in the Westside to the next stage of the business case process, despite officers recommending it be parked.

Peterson also reckons the band of 23 councillors have a “really good relationship” together – but feels it would be good to see more younger people or women on board.

There are currently only five women in the chamber – although two of which, Emma Macdonald and Andrea Manson, hold the top leader and convener roles.

In the south Bryan Peterson was not only elected to the council for the first time but then later given the depute convener role too – something which he said was “unexpected and is a genuine honour”.

He said being a councillor is a “varied job” – from helping folk with individual enquiries to setting long-term economic policy.

I’m always on shift – folk might want to speak about council issues at the Bigton Sunday teas, or knock the door on a Sunday night, or phone at any time of day,” Peterson said.

“I’m always happy to hear from folk and it’s rewarding to be able to help them out.”

When it comes to meetings and seminars, Peterson believes they are as “productive and positive as you make them”.

Depute convener Bryan Peterson.

“We’re presented with a wealth of information and there’s a lot of reading to do, but they’re an invaluable way to stay updated with what’s happening across the council. It’s up to councillors to know what’s happening in our wards, and across Shetland, and feed that back into the mix at the town hall,” Peterson said.

“I book a room in Lystina House [at the town hall] each week for an informal lunchtime gathering for any councillors who want to drop in or join online. It’s a good way to keep up to date with news from the wards and catch up with my south end colleagues.

“Local authorities are quite complex organisations bound by a host of legislation, and understanding how to navigate the processes is crucial. It’s about arming yourself with information and building consensus with fellow councillors – speaking to as many people as possible, listening to the community, researching, testing ideas, seeking advice and treating people and their opinions with respect.”

Peterson said the “formality and rigid structure” of the council’s committee meetings “took a little getting used to” – but he encouraged folk to take an interest in how these processes work, by watching online or checking out agenda items.

“I find the council officials are open to robust challenge, and whenever I ask for information they’re happy to provide it,” he added.

“In my experience, councillors and officers all have the best interests of Shetland in mind and an ‘us and them’ combative attitude isn’t helpful. Councillors provide scrutiny and oversight, and we need to work with officials to collectively develop positive, workable policies for the common good.

“Just criticising people and policies is easy. The real challenge is to offer alternative visions and drive through change. That’s our job and we’re given the tools and opportunities to do so.”

Regarding the depute convener role – being the understudy to convener Manson – Peterson said it is a “splendidly varied and interesting role” with duties like meeting and greeting visitors to Shetland, hosting civic ceremonies, ‘saying a few words’ at events, and chairing council meetings when the convener is not available. “She calls me her ‘stunt double’,” he said.

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