21st May 2018
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Editorial

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Courtesy of Audit Scotland, we now know that the cost to council taxpayers of removing David Clark from his post will be at least £306,000 (an arrangement has not yet been reached with the Inland Revenue on the tax component of the payoff, which will increase the final figure substantially). Perhaps now Shetland Islands Council will end its silly game and own up to those who elect members in good faith what their money is spent on.

Perhaps the council leadership will also accept, as this column argued at the time to howls of derision from the convener and others, that “It is of serious concern that a significant amount of public money has been spent to settle the case with the chief executive. Using public money in this way is particularly unwelcome at a time of increasing financial pressures in public services” (Audit Scotland’s report).

The report states that councillors were advised there were signficiant “financial risks” in pursuing disciplinary action against Mr Clark. Risks, not certainties. We were told at the time by Cosla that the path taken represented “best value”. Leaving aside the obvious vacuousness of this claim, it remains our firm belief that calling Mr Clark’s bluff would have been a much more satisfactory course of action than handing him a huge, tax-free lump sum. At least then his predilection for spin and bluster would have been exposed for what it is.

It is clear from the report that positions within the council are now entrenched and that the differing interpretations of the course of events are likely to persist. A bout of washing the dirty linen in public might at least have begun the healing process. But that’s not the Shetland way, is it?

In general, we have serious reservations about the Audit Scotland report. At a mere 12 pages, it only skims the surface of the issues facing the council. By the author’s own admission it is not a “forensic investigation into all the circumstances surrounding the events leading to the chief executive’s departure” when that is precisely what was required. With the exception of some finer points of detail, anyone with a good command of English who had been observing this grisly episode could have written what is effectively a narrative of the events of the last year.

Other than putting in place a proper recruitment process and performance appraisal system for a chief executive, where are the suggestions as to how the council can get out of this mess? What are the new chief executive’s objectives to be? How are the strategic leadership, governance and budgetary failings identified to be redressed?

The Accounts Commission, when it considers the auditors’ report, has an awful lot of work to do. The council itself has a long way to go: many councillors and senior officials are still in denial. We need to get to the bottom of this particularly rancid barrel before we will be able to move on. There seems little chance of that happening.

As a coda, MP Alistair Carmichael and MSP Tavish Scott have come under attack again this week for intervening in local government by referring the deletion of assistant chief executive Willie Shannon’s post to Audit Scotland, with some inferring that they were bullied into doing so by certain councillors and officials. Nonsense. Whatever their faults, Mr Carmichael and Mr Scott are intelligent individuals perfectly capable of making their own judgements about local affairs. And as elected figures they have every right to act in the manner they did; after all, most councillors were extremely slow to act when a serious situation arose.

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