The Accounts Commission is to hold a public hearing into events surrounding Shetland Islands Council over the past 12 months, including the controversial decision to pay off its former chief executive.
After deliberating on Audit Scotland’s damning report into the local authority yesterday morning, the commission confirmed yesterday afternoon that a hearing will take place in the next few months. It is understood it could be as early as next month.
The hearing is likely to consist of a panel of five people interviewing councillors and key officials, with parts of some interviews likely to be conducted in private, and is not expected to take more than a couple of days.
The hearing will focus on how the council is being run and the arrangements made for the departure of David Clark as chief executive earlier this year. It will be a public meeting held in a venue in Shetland.
Reacting to the news, SIC convener Sandy Cluness said that, as far as he was concerned, the sooner a hearing was heard the better. “At least we’ll get all things out into the open,” he said. “Cosla will be given the opportunity to say what they want to as well.”
The Audit Commission said further details regarding the dates, timespan, venue, invitations and representations would be announced “in due course, once arrangements have been put in place”. Once the hearing has taken place the commission will publish its findings, which may include recommendations to the council and/or Scottish ministers.
In a short statement, Accounts Commission chairman John Baillie said: “The Commission is particularly interested to hear first hand from the council and other relevant parties to gather further evidence and understand better the council’s situation.”
The report from Audit Scotland was heavily critical of councillors’ role in a long-running debacle relating partly to the appointment and departure of Mr Clark. It said members were unable to take clear and consistent decisions, failed to show sufficient respect to SIC officials, lacked a coherent leadership strategy and needed to make decisions more inclusively.
It said the use of £306,000 of taxpayers’ money, including legal costs, to pay Mr Clark off was of “serious concern” and “particularly unwelcome at a time of increasing financial pressures in public services”. Once tax liabilities are factored in the final bill is likely to exceed £400,000. Some members of the public took to the streets in protest after details of the settlement were revealed by The Shetland Times in late February.
The report described the process to recruit Mr Clark as flawed and said councillors had failed to put in place a “robust process” to set objectives for the chief executive or to appraise and manage his performance.
Mr Cluness and a number of other councillors expressed disappointment last week at the report’s self-confessed failure to take a more forensic approach to investigating events of the past year, including Mr Clark’s attempt to delete assistant chief executive Willie Shannon’s post.
Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills, who has never been far away from the controversy, welcomed news of the hearing: “Perhaps we can get to the truth and find out whose blame it was,” he said. “I’m very glad that they haven’t accepted the Audit Scotland view that blame is collective because, while we’re all supposed to demonstrate leadership, I would have thought that elected leaders should take responsibility for what’s done.”
Some councillors were unhappy that they were not interviewed by Audit Scotland during its earlier investigation but they may now get the chance to give evidence at a hearing.
Councillor Rick Nickerson said: “A number of us were disappointed that they only interviewed the chairs and vice-chairs [of committees] although we were given a very late opportunity to submit a view if we so wished.” He said he believed some members would be willing to take part in the hearing provided evidence could be given in private.
More generally, he said of the hearing: “If they feel it is something they want to do to gain more information then that is fine. It will give people a chance to express their views.”
Isles MSP Tavish Scott also welcomed the hearing, saying: “Local people in Shetland have been very concerned by recent events. The Accounts Commission’s decision today to hold a public inquiry is an important step in ensuring that local people understand what happened and that lessons will be learnt for the future.”