Politics in Shetland reached a nadir this week. As now ex-chief executive David Clark celebrated his lottery-sized bung from the council with champagne, members of the public were left feeling betrayed by those whom they had elected as custodians of the resources they work hard to hand over to the local authority every month for the benefit of the wider community. Having last Wednesday taken prudent steps to marshal those resources for the future, our councillors made an utterly repugnant and unforgiveable decision two days later to reward a man whose nine months in office has brought shame and embarrassment on these islands – in return for his slinking off without accepting any culpability.
But let us not forget, the council’s leadership and some senior officals were complicit in allowing the deletion of Willie Shannon’s post, Mr Clark’s drinking in his office with schools reviewer Andrew Laidler, the farrago of the alleged phone call threatening violence to councillor Jonathan Wills and other unsavoury incidents to reflect badly on them through sheer incompetence. They let Mr Clark steamroller ahead without regard to procedures that are laid down for local government for very good reasons and when complaints were made they were treated with contempt. We are still waiting to hear the fate of the complaint made by six councillors in December about 20 episodes involving Mr Clark – a complaint that has apparently been bargained away as part of the deal.
Police are now looking again at Dr Wills’ allegations after a senior council official came forward to volunteer that he had heard Mr Clark rehearsing what he intended to say to the councillor earlier in the day of the phone call. The key question here is whether that individual informed fellow officials of this at the time. Yet this development has been ignored by convener Sandy Cluness in his headlong rush to get Mr Clark out of the Town Hall without his own reputation being besmirched. It’s far too late for that. Mr Cluness has entirely misread the public mood. People are disgusted with the persistent squandering of public money in Shetland; Mr Clark’s payoff is just the latest symptom. The convener is just not up to the job. He should do the honourable thing and resign.
Similarly, the local government organisation Cosla does not emerge well out of this debacle. The deal hatched by its chief executive Rory Mair is straight out of the central Scotland school of local government problem-solving: sweep it under the carpet, buy silence and move on to the next guy (hopefully he’ll be better). Mr Mair said in a statement this week that he did not believe the public should be discussing Mr Clark’s payoff. What rubbish – it’s not just that the public is interested in the cost of the deal, there is a legitimate public interest in the purpose for which taxpayers’ money is used. We shall have to hope that the Accounts Commission, when it comes to Shetland to hold its public inquiry into what has gone on, is much more open-minded.
If public trust is to be restored, all councillors must now volunteer to stand down, forcing Shetland-wide by-elections. If they are confident that the decisions they have made are the right ones, they should be happy to test that out in public. It would be an unprecedented step, but when a democratic body is facing a legitimacy crisis of this magnitude it must act boldly to regain the respect of those it purports to represent. Come on ladies and gentlemen, resign your seats and let the voters give their verdict.