Council chief executive embroiled in investigation over his behaviour
Chief executive of Shetland Islands Council David Clark is to be the subject of an independent investigation over an accusation that he threatened a councillor with violence.
A complaint was made to the police on Thursday by councillor Jonathan Wills alleging that Mr Clark had vowed to “kick his f***ing teeth in” during a telephone call on Wednesday evening.
A special conclave of three councillors held a four-hour session at Lerwick Town Hall on Thursday afternoon but it broke up just before 5pm after those present decided that the evidence available lacked clarity and that further investigation was necessary.
In a statement issued later, council convener Sandy Cluness said arrangements for the appointment of an independent reviewer would be put “in place immediately”. In the meantime Mr Clark will take a short holiday “to make himself more readily available” for the review. The council hopes to appoint someone from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) to look into the matter.
In a separate development on Friday, it emerged that Mr Clark is facing disciplinary action after a complaint was made regarding an incident in which he and Andrew Laidler, who carried out the independent review into the siting of the new Anderson High School, indulged in heavy drinking in his office earlier this month. Mr Cluness said that this would be dealt with in-house and not by the independent investigator.
The extraordinary events at the Town Hall followed recent heavy criticism of Mr Clark, 43, who only took over the local authority’s top position on 1st June this year, over the circumstances surrounding the deletion of Willie Shannon’s post as SIC assistant chief executive.
But his troubles took a new turn with the revelation from Dr Wills, who took his complaint to the police in relation to the incident. It has been suggested by several sources that the councillor alleged Mr Clark had phoned him and threatened to “kick him in the f***ing teeth” if he did not stop digging into his private life. Mr Clark strenuously denied having threatened Dr Wills or having made such a remark: “I did not say that to him, absolutely not.”
Isles police chief inspector David Bushell confirmed late on Thursday that officers in Lerwick are now making inquiries following a complaint from an elected member but said he was unable to comment any further at this stage.
Prior to the meeting Mr Cluness confirmed to The Shetland Times that, in line with strict national guidelines in such matters, he had appointed a small group of councillors to carry out an initial investigation into the complaint, which began at 1pm and only concluded after lengthy deliberations last night.
It is the preliminary stage of the process and a further committee will now have to be set up to look into the allegations further. The councillors involved are believed to have been Allan Wishart, Jim Budge and Rick Nickerson.
After Dr Wills wrote to all 22 members to inform them of his complaint, his fellow Lerwick South councillor Cecil Smith responded by suggesting that Mr Clark should be suspended immediately while a full investigation was carried out. Dr Wills confirmed he had made a complaint about a senior official but that he did not want to say anything further on the matter.
The outspoken councillor has been strongly critical of Mr Clark on several occasions during his short tenure in the post and the relationship between the two has deteriorated sharply in recent weeks.
Not all councillors have been aware of the events unfolding, with at least one third of them away during the past couple of days on SIC business, holidays and personal business. But some of those who were tracking events admitted they were looking on in horror at the unfolding drama.
The isles’ two parliamentarians, MP Alistair Carmichael and MSP Tavish Scott, had written to Mr Cluness asking for an external review into the Shannon affair to be carried out. Mr Carmichael said they were both “extremely concerned” by the potential damage to the reputation of both the council and Shetland as a whole over the way the affair had been handled.
Their intervention came after Mr Shannon complained publicly last week that he had been demoted by Mr Clark without proper consultation, prompting criticism of Mr Clark’s behaviour from trade union Unison and a number of councillors.
But Mr Clark told The Shetland Times that he was concerned that some claims published recently were “factually incorrect”, adding: “I can confirm that there was consultation with the assistant chief executive and the contents of that are contained in a confidential report to go before Full Council.”
He said he was “astonished” that Mr Carmichael and Mr Scott had chosen to get involved, saying: “Neither of them contacted me – had they done so perhaps some of their concerns could have been alleviated.” He added: “I am a man who does consult, I have always intended to consult and I will continue to consult before I take major decisions.”
In his report, circulated to councillors and due to be discussed in private on Wednesday, Mr Clark insists that the union had been consulted along with senior management and senior councillors over the restructuring. The report states: “Unison has not made any response on details of the structural changes.”
A joint statement released by the SIC and Unison last week moved to assure employees that in any situation where reorganisation was required, “all affected individuals and their trade unions will be consulted timeously”.
Mr Clark announced last Monday that Mr Shannon’s job was being deleted to make way for a new post of “head of asset strategy” with responsibilities including overseeing the drawing up of a £100 million, five-year capital programme.
It is understood that, during a meeting late last month with senior council management, Mr Shannon was offered a six-month trial period working in the new role or taking up the position of temporary corporate lawyer, working under Jan Riise in the legal department. Both would have seen him remain on his existing salary. He was given the alternative of a redundancy package.
Mr Shannon was made assistant chief executive back in 2006 during Morgan Goodlad’s reign at the top of Lerwick Town Hall, although the post was never formally advertised. He was also the reserve candidate when Mr Clark was appointed in May, but claimed he had returned from his holiday in late August to learn that his job no longer existed. He is now off work and is considering taking legal action against the council.
The report also says that discussions with Mr Shannon over clarifying his job description – which had never been properly formalised by Mr Goodlad – commenced within 10 days of Mr Clark starting work on 1st June. But an email exchange between the two ended on 22nd June after which Mr Shannon said he heard nothing until being summoned to a meeting to discuss “a new role” on 24th August.
Mr Clark is believed to be frustrated that Mr Shannon has cried foul despite having been offered what is effectively the fourth most senior position within the local authority.
Meanwhile, Mr Shannon’s wife has launched a scathing attack on Mr Clark’s treatment of her husband. In a statement issued on Wednesday, Katherine Shannon said she felt the chief executive’s actions had been “unjust, punitive, vindictive and plain wrong” and expressed her heartfelt thanks to the community for the support shown to her family in the past week or so.
Mr Carmichael told The Shetland Times he felt there were “significant questions” to be answered about whether proper policies and procedures had been followed by the chief executive. He added that evidence he had seen suggested necessary consultation may not have been carried out.
In light of that, the Liberal Democrat politicians decided to go public in voicing their jointly-held opinion that a review was now “imperative” and should be carried out by someone outwith the SIC who has knowledge of both employment law and accepted local authority procedures.
Mr Carmichael said he and Mr Scott had not taken the decision to intervene lightly, but there was the potential for the affair to “reflect really badly” on the isles and could “end up bringing Shetland into the national glare in a way that wouldn’t be helpful”. He added it was something which had to be dealt with “quickly and sharply”.
One councillor said he and other members were dismayed by the increasingly ugly nature of the dispute. He said he hoped procedures would be instigated quickly. “We don’t need this but if somebody’s done wrong we need to get it sorted out.” He was also surprised and disappointed that the MSP and MP had seen fit to get involved in an internal council matter.
The vice-convener Josie Simpson was being kept informed in Edinburgh where he was attending a government meeting. He did not want to comment on the matter. Caroline Miller said she had just arrived back from Edinburgh on Thursday and had “absolutely no idea what you are speaking about whatsoever”.