Key evidence about chief executive’s threat of violence to councillor never heard, says watchdog
Evidence which would have supported councillor Jonathan Wills’ claim that the council’s then chief executive David Clark threatened him with violence in a phone call last autumn was never heard by the panel convened to deal with the complaint, according to the Standards Commission.
In a meeting on the morning of 9th September attended by Mr Clark, depute chief executive Hazel Sutherland and executive director of infrastructure Gordon Greenhill, Mr Clark said of Dr Wills that he “would like to take him up a back lane and kick his … f****** teeth in” or something very like it, Mr Greenhill told the watchdog’s chief investigating officer Stuart Allan.
In his own evidence to Mr Allan, Mr Clark even admitted that at this meeting he may have said something like “If this was the West of Scotland he … might have been taken up a lane and had his teeth kicked in, but it’s not, it’s Shetland”. Dr Wills has consistently accused Mr Clark of making just such a threat in a phone call to him later that day.
Mr Clark also told Mr Allan he had been agitated that morning about Dr Wills’ activities and suspected that he was “leaking information to the press, generating unrest about the workplace performance of [Mr Clark] and generally obstinately and unreasonably refusing to accept properly made corporate decisions”. Mr Clark, says Mr Allan, was “turning over in his mind how he might address this difficulty”.
However, despite Mr Greenhill making panel convener Allan Wishart and vice-convener Iris Hawkins aware of what Mr Clark had said, and his holding the view that it was significant and that he should be asked about it, it was not “mentioned, far less explored” at the hearing into Dr Wills’ complaint.
“I have no doubt that if the investigating committee had heard [the] chief executive give evidence to the effect that he had discussed (albeit in selected geographical locations only) the possibility of violence being visited on [Dr Wills] in terms very similar to those alleged to have been made only some hours later and/or heard similar evidence from [Mr Greenhill] they would have given it careful consideration,” Mr Allan says in his report, which clears Dr Wills of 10 counts of breaching the councillors’ code of conduct.
“I am of the view that this was relevant material which was not uncovered and properly explored as part of the investigatory process, partly perhaps because the rigours and disciplines inherent in an adversarial hearing were not fully deployed at the investigating committee stage. In light of the foregoing, especially given the seriousness of the matter under consideration, I can understand [Dr Wills’] broad concerns about the adequacy of the proceedings …”
Dr Wills learned earlier this week that he had been exonerated by Mr Allan but it was not until late yesterday that the watchdog published a five-page version of its findings. The full 37-page report is understood to contain many more detailed criticisms of the council.
Mr Allan’s investigation followed a complaint by Mr Clark, who left the council in February with a £250,000 payoff, Ms Sutherland, head of legal Jan Riise, Mr Cluness and Mr Simpson lodged in October after Mr Clark returned to work when the council said there was insufficient evidence to prove that he had threatened Dr Wills.
Dr Wills responded to Mr Clark’s return in a statement to the press repeating the allegation, accusing Mr Clark of being a bully and attacking the investigation. He also criticised Mr Clark’s handling of a restructuring among senior officials which resulted in the deletion of assistant chief executive Willie Shannon’s post and claimed the chief executive had been involved in a drinking session in his Town Hall office on the afternoon of 3rd September.
In a letter to this newspaper today Mr Clark pointed out that he had been cleared of Dr Wills’ accusations on three occasions by the council and, following two police investigations, the procurator fiscal had made public that he had no case to answer. “In these circumstances, the opinion of a third party, based on second hand evidence months after the events in question holds little interest for me.”
He said he now had “serious concerns” for Ms Sutherland and Mr Riise, as well as other staff members, following the decision to clear Dr Wills. “With this report, the … Standards Commission has issued a charter for anarchy. The rules no longer apply. Every employee of Shetland Islands Council is now at risk from public ridicule, criticism and humiliation, without recourse or protection.”
In his report Mr Allan criticises Mr Clark for getting rid of Mr Shannon, who was the reserve candidate for the chief executive’s job following interviews last May. Mr Shannon was invited back to work in December by the council but is seeking a secondment outwith Shetland.
“On any reasonable reading of the council’s constitutional documents I did not consider that the chief executive had delegated authority to make the changes to the role or conditions of employment of the assistant chief executive,” Mr Allan says.
“Even if he had, by approaching the sensitive matter of an officer who had recently been a – strong – candidate for the post of chief executive in a peremptory fashion, he courted the controversy which followed.
“However [Dr Wills] became involved, it was unlikely that he would not pursue the issue which of course had generated a lot of local, and indeed, national interest.”
On the drinking allegation, Mr Allan does not give a view on the vexed question of whether Mr Clark was on holiday when he shared champagne with former business partner Andrew Laidler, whom he had appointed to oversee a review into the location of the new Anderson High School, or whether it was granted retrospectively.
But he does state: “I have no reason to doubt, however, the explanation given by the depute chief executive to the effect that she had an appointment with the chief executive on the afternoon of 3rd September, but when she was told by Town Hall staff that he had been drinking with the consultant decided that it ‘was not worth’ attending for the meeting. She characterised the behaviour of the chief executive as ‘disrespectful’.
“I considered it to have been unwise for the chief executive to have laid himself open to the criticism of over relaxing on council premises.”
Mr Allan states that Mr Clark later apologised to Ms Sutherland “and the matter ended there”.
The appointment of Mr Laidler himself comes in for close scrutiny. At the time Mr Clark was adamant that this had been done by services committee chairman Gussie Angus. Mr Allan demurs.
“When the convener of the services committee announced on 24th June that a consultant to review the high school project had been appointed as a consultant by the chief executive, he had only been in post for a matter of three weeks. It was understandable that the chief executive’s priority at that time was to ensure that the review of this project was progressed as quickly as possible.
“The council’s administrative arrangements as set out in [orders], however, did not appear to invest in the chief executive authority to make such an appointment.”
Dr Wills narrowly escapes censure for his criticism of Mr Clark for claiming “unreasonable pressure” had been exerted on planning and road staff in relation to the acceleration of the planning application for the new Anderson High School at the Knab.
“In my view the comments of [Dr Wills], even if made at a point when his involvement in, and dedication to the campaign surrounding the Anderson High School project may have clouded his judgement, were extremely unwise,” says Mr Allan.