A growing number of councillors believe that elected office holders within the SIC should relinquish their positions and stand again in an attempt to move on from recent crises, while there is persistent talk behind the scenes about a plot to remove the chief executive David Clark from his job.
The idea being spoken about fairly openly among some members is for the positions of convener and vice-convener, along with the chairs and vice-chairs of the council’s various commitees, to be vacated by their holders.
With the council at the mid-point of its extended five-year term – a result of changes to local authority election dates across Scotland – it is being seen by some as a way of giving the “discredited” regime a fresh start.
In addition, it is understood that at least four councillors now wish to see Sandy Cluness resign as convener in the wake of recent events. Mr Cluness insists he intends to stay in the post until the next election in May 2012 and believes he retains the confidence of the majority of councillors.
He said: “I had always decided this was my last spell, so I really have no intention of standing down before then. There are many ways of going about this. If a majority of councillors wanted me to stand down, I’m a democrat and I would do that, but I don’t get any sense of that at all.”
Councillor Gary Robinson is publicly calling for Mr Cluness to “consider his position” following a string of embarrassing calamities – including the deletion of assistant chief executive Willie Shannon’s post by Mr Clark, the handling of the debacle which saw Mr Clark absolved of threatening violence in a phone call to councillor Jonathan Wills and the subsequent decision to report Dr Wills to the Standards Commission.
The five – Mr Clark, deputy chief executive Hazel Sutherland, head of legal Jan Riise, Mr Cluness and vice-convener Josie Simpson – who signed last month’s complaint have now received an acknowledgement from the Standards Commission. It could take up to three months to be resolved, but the decision to report Dr Wills has not been well received among many councillors who see it as a counter-productive move when the SIC is at least notionally trying to move on from events over the past three months.
Dr Wills this week expressed discontent that those who made the complaint had still not “had the courtesy” to inform him of the reasons behind writing to the commission or the content of their submission.
With regard to that move, the Lerwick South councillor’s close ally Mr Robinson said on Radio Shetland: “I was really disappointed entirely with the way that was handled and I think it’s really made the situation worse. There [are] serious issues of trust and confidence in our community because of the way that and other things have been handled of late. The council has set a bad example in this instance. We must try and draw a line under this.
“I think there needs to be an element of truth and reconcililation that there have been mistakes made. I think it’s time they were owned up to and I think that’s the only way we can possibly move forward and I think that we maybe do need to look at changes in the leadership as well.”
He added: “I do think quite clearly that the only way we can actually put this behind us is for a restructuring of the council as it is now. At this moment I would stop short of calling for the convener to resign, but I do think he needs to consider his position.”
Mr Robinson’s concerns over the Standards Commission complaint were backed by Gussie Angus, who said he was “equally disturbed” about how it had been handled.
Meanwhile, talks between Mr Shannon, ACAS and Mr Clark are scheduled to take place on Monday and Tuesday next week after councillors resolved to engineer a way of getting the assistant chief executive back to his desk. He has now been off work for nearly three months.
There have been various rumblings behind the scenes over the last seven days, but both Mr Clark and Mr Cluness said they had a good working relationship despite rumours to the contrary. The convener said he had “never heard about” any possible move to unseat the chief executive: “I’m not aware of anything, I don’t usually comment on staffing matters.”
While a majority of councillors appear to be backing Mr Clark, the loss of the trust and confidence of a handful of members was enough to make Nick Reiter’s position as chief executive untenable back in 1999. One councillor this week said he felt that if the trust and confidence of even five or six members had been lost, it was difficult to see how Mr Clark could remain in post.
Another councillor, who has been taking a back seat throughout the affair, said it was going to be extremely difficult for Mr Clark to win back credibility, saying the chances of him being a success in the job or “even passable” had been “very substantially diminished”.
Another, who is not among those actively plotting to unseat the chief executive, said he believed there would be “no resistance” among councillors to any such attempt “as long as it happens properly”.
Mr Clark said he did not want to be dragged into talking about what he felt was old news, adding: “I’m entirely comfortable that I’m getting on and doing a professional job with the support of the council.”
Meanwhile, Dr Wills has tabled 15 questions to Mr Riise about allegations that Mr Clark spent the afternoon of 9th September drinking in his office with former business associate Andrew Laidler. “I want answers to these questions,” said Dr Wills, adding that if he had not received a response by Monday afternoon he would be taking his complaint to Audit Scotland or the Standards Commission.
Dr Wills – still the only councillor to state publicly that he wishes to see Mr Clark leave – said he supported moves by some of his fellow councillors to have a fresh start for the council by re-electing major post-holders, including those of convener and vice-convener. “This administration is discredited,” he said. “Everybody would have to be reconfirmed – that provides a mechanism for a transfer of power if it’s appropriate.”
He added: “We need to restore not just public confidence but the confidence of staff. I’ve had many staff speak to me and write to me and say they are concerned the council is becoming an object of derision. They do a lot of good work and they do not wish to be tarred with this brush.”