Willie Shannon has welcomed the olive branch held out to him by the council after it was admitted that his job of assistant chief executive should not have been “deleted” by chief executive David Clark.
Negotiations are set to take place between the local authority, independent mediation service ACAS and public sector trade union Unison in the coming weeks to hammer out a solution which would allow Mr Shannon to return to work.
He told The Shetland Times: “All I want is to get back to doing a good job for the community. Having worked my way up through the ranks of the council, I have a strong sense of what we’re meant to be doing and that’s delivering the best services that we can – let’s get on with that. Life’s too short to be bitter about these things; it’s important that lessons are learned.”
During yet another tempestuous week in local politics, it emerged that the isles’ two parliamentarians, MSP Tavish Scott and MP Alistair Carmichael, have formally written to financial watchdog Audit Scotland asking them to investigate the matter and Mr Shannon backed that call. “In the interests of fairness to everyone in the Shetland community, it’s only right that the situation is looked at independently.”
At a private meeting in Lerwick Town Hall on Wednesday, councillors agreed to carry out more consultation on Mr Clark’s plans to restructure his executive team under which the assistant chief executive post would be 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 try to engineer 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 furiously 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 period of 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.
But it is understood that a move by Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills for the SIC to make an official public apology to Mr Shannon was voted down amid concerns about the potential future legal ramifications of such a move.
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”.
With the breakdown of trust between Mr Clark and Mr Shannon it will be difficult for both sides to find a mutually satisfactory outcome. It is understood one possible way forward might be for Mr Shannon to be seconded to a role which will not involve day-to-day contact with Mr Clark.
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 pointedly refused to 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.”
When quizzed by journalists over whether he felt the situation had been handled badly, Mr Cluness replied: “You can say whatever you like.” When it was suggested to him that the council appeared to be admitting that consultation had not been carried out properly, he responded: “So be it.”
Unison branch chairman Brian Smith said what had happened earlier this summer was “highly unfortunate” but he was satisfied that things now seemed to be moving in a more positive direction.
“The correct procedures weren’t used and the correct advice wasn’t given,” he said. “We must make sure that doesn’t happen again. The chief executive has issued a statement that it won’t happen again, that all the unions and all the staff affected by the changes will be consulted properly, and we’ve got to build on that.
“It’s only if that happens that we have a good organisation. People will be happier if they are treated properly, and the organisation will benefit from that.”
Dr Wills said he was very sorry for the way Mr Shannon had been treated. “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.”
On Tuesday, it was confirmed that Mr Scott and Mr Carmichael had written to Audit Scotland asking them to investigate the case. In light of Wednesday’s decision, Mr Cluness said he hoped they would retract their submission but it is understood that they have no intention of doing so.
“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,” said Mr Cluness. “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.”
The two politicians have already made public their displeasure at the way Mr Shannon has been treated by Mr Clark and the council’s head of legal services, Jan Riise. They wrote to Mr Cluness last month asking for an external review, a request which he rejected.
Mr Carmichael said on Tuesday afternoon that he had no comment to make on the matter at this stage. However, it is understood that he and Mr Scott wrote last week to auditor general for Scotland Robert Black urging a thorough investigation into the conduct, procedures and costs of action being taken by Mr Clark in relation to Mr Shannon.
They are believed to say in the letter that they have had sight of employment law advice received by Mr Shannon which suggests that he has a case for constructive dismissal and a financial claim against the SIC which they judge would run to six figures.
An Audit Scotland spokeswoman confirmed that it had received correspondence expressing concern about the council’s “conduct and procedures”.
She said: “Following our usual procedures we have passed it to the local auditors for Shetland Islands Council and they are considering it as part of the ongoing audit of the council. If there is anything significant, it will be flagged up and will go through our usual processes that way.”