By NEIL RIDDELL
SHETLAND Islands Council should consider following the lead of the Western Isles and radically overhauling the way its political leadership is structured in order to improve the standard of democracy in the isles, according to a councillor.
Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills is calling for the SIC to consider abandoning the current arrangement of having a convener and vice-convener, posts held by Sandy Cluness and Josie Simpson respectively. Instead Dr Wills, who has been a strong critic of the current leadership in recent months, is arguing that the council should have a civic leader and a political leader.
He admitted that many of the councillors with whom he had raised the idea “thought it would be mad”, but maintains the belief that a clearer demarcation of roles is required to strengthen the democratic process.
“There are two paid positions, a civic head and a political leader,” he said. “I’m not clear whether he [Mr Cluness] is both, or just one. I think we should have systems of government which are clear and transparent.”
Councillor Gary Robinson backed the call, pointing out that Western Isles Council recently made a similar change. Following an acrimonious spat over school closures in the Outer Hebrides, its vice-convener Alex Macdonald ended up taking control of the authority with convener Angus Campbell’s role being redefined as a largely ceremonial civic post.
In addition, Dr Wills is calling for increased checks and balances on office-bearers within the council chamber in light of the news that the current term of the council is likely to run for five years, instead of four, as the Scottish government seeks to harmonise elections.
A bill to that effect is expected to go before MSPs at Holyrood sometime next year following the shambolic voting fiasco witnessed during the 2007 elections, when thousands of votes were not counted amid voter confusion over two separate ballot papers, although Shetland was largely unaffected by the problems.
The eventual plan is for local authority ballots to be held two years apart from elections to the Scottish Parliament, meaning the term of the current council will run until 2012 while the subsequent council will also sit for five years.
MSP Tavish Scott said his party supported the move and he expects the bill to pass without any problems, though he actually felt the hotly-contested local authority elections in Shetland last year actually helped stimulate higher turnout in the vote to elect an MSP.
In May 2007, the council decided to appoint committee chairs for the full duration of this council but Dr Wills feels the government’s proposed changes mean a routine mechanism for annual, or biennial, confirmation of these positions should be put in place.
His suggestion would mean that anyone wishing to stand against an incumbent has the opportunity to do so without having to call a motion of no confidence, a system he described as “unnecessarily confrontational”.
Dr Wills said the idea behind the proposal was to ensure that in the absence of party politics and an official opposition, office-bearers are subject to the same checks and balances as they would be in any other local authority, adding that the changes should not be viewed as a threat.
“I do not seek office in this council,” he said. “On almost all occasions whoever held the post would be re-elected, and the transition could be smoother and without so much acrimony.”
Dr Wills aired his thoughts at a meeting of the audit and scrutiny committee in Lerwick Town Hall on Wednesday morning, but chairwoman Florence Grains was dismissive of both suggestions. She said the potential for changing who chairs committees every year would lead to a “grave lack of continuity”.
“You could take it even further and change councillors every year, too,” Mrs Grains said, to which vice-chairman Allison Duncan quipped: “That wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
Lerwick North member Caroline Miller was also opposed to Dr Wills’ proposals, saying they “could be seen as being divisive”, adding that a convener and vice-convener had been appointed and that the council should stick with that.
She said: “I don’t know if that’s something we should be scrutinising. I don’t think this is part of our remit and I would like some legal advice on that.”
The committee voted by four to three in favour of Mrs Miller’s suggestion to consult the SIC’s legal head Jan Riise to establish whether the matter was within audit and scrutiny’s remit before holding a debate, in spite of similar action taken by the Western Isles and Dr Wills’ opinion that there was nothing barring the committee from talking about such matters.
A somewhat baffled Dr Wills said afterwards: “We do not need the permission of a council lawyer before discussing this.”