Shetland Islands Council is holding out an olive branch to its assistant chief executive Willie Shannon, whose post had previously been “deleted” by chief executive David Clark.
Negotiations are set to take place between the local authority, independent mediation service ACAS and trade union Unison in the coming weeks to hammer out a solution which would allow Mr Shannon to return to work.
At a private meeting in Lerwick Town Hall, councillors agreed to try and resolve the situation to everyone’s satisfaction. That means more consultation on Mr Clark’s plans to restructure his executive team – which would essentially see the assistant chief executive post replaced by a “head of asset strategy” to take charge of the council’s £100 million capital programme over the next five years.
Significantly, by deciding to “press the reset button” on the restructuring process, the SIC has also resolved to find a way of engineering a situation whereby Mr Shannon can go back to his desk. He has been absent since late August when he returned from a family holiday to be told the post had been deleted.
At that time Mr Shannon, Unison and both of the isles’ parliamentarians protested that there had been insufficient consultation and that correct procedures had not been followed.
Councillors’ decision to accept Mr Clark’s proposal for an “extended consultation” effectively amounts to an admission that the situation was not handled properly the first time around. Mr Clark has always maintained that “proper consultation” was carried out.
Consultation with the affected parties will take place in November with a view to a subsequent report going before the next Full Council on 9th December. Head of organisational development John Smith said the process was “no fait accompli” and there would be scope for new proposals, as well as for existing ones to be “amended or removed”.
Earlier in the summer, Mr Clark offered Mr Shannon, a qualified lawyer, a choice between a six-month trial period in the new head of asset strategy role, a holding role within the SIC’s legal department on his existing salary or a redundancy package.
The original announcement about deleting the post was made in August by Mr Clark, who said he had been given the approval to do so during a meeting with senior councillors and officials. That prompted concern from some members, who felt they should have been fully consulted about restructuring at such a high level in the SIC hierarchy and that any decision should have been taken in a more formal setting.
Mr Smith told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon: “Every time you try to do something better you are tacitly saying it wasn’t perfect the last time. Press the reset button, I suppose. Everybody has to step back a bit and work to find solutions to suit us all.”
Convener Sandy Cluness said he wanted to see the situation resolved as soon as possible and that everyone would soon be “back working together” for the benefit of the Shetland community. “We must all now use this time effectively to ensure that everything is fully explored, and try to find resolutions to suit all parties.”
Mr Cluness did not explicitly accept that there had been shortcomings in the process, but he did apologise on a personal level to Mr Shannon for the way things had worked out.
He said: “It’s my wish that Willie comes back to work and is a part of the process for whatever kind of eventual programme we have. I’ve known Willie for a while and, as an individual, I’m sorry that this is the way things have turned out, certainly.”
On Tuesday, it was confirmed that MSP Tavish Scott and MP Alistair Carmichael had written to financial watchdog Audit Scotland asking them to look into the matter. In light of that decision, Mr Cluness said he hoped the two politicians would retract their submission.
“Some time ago I had correspondence with Tavish and Alistair on this very topic and said it was my intention to try and resolve the position as soon as I could, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. At least that has been accepted, so I would expect now that these politicians would withdraw whatever application they have made to the Audit Commission.”
Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills said he was very sorry for what had happened to Mr Shannon but happy that things seemed to be moving in the right direction. “I, personally, apologise to Willie Shannon for what the council has done to him and his family over the last nine weeks.
“I never had any particular problem with what the chief executive is proposing to do. My argument with him is the way he went about doing it. I don’t think we need an assistant chief executive. I personally think we need a full-time deputy chief executive because the job is so onerous.”