David Clark was removed from his post as chief executive of Shetland Islands Council in February for an obscenely large amount of public money. Councillor Jonathan Wills was cleared last week by the Standards Commission of the complaints made against him by Mr Clark, council convener Sandy Cluness, vice-convener Josie Simpson, depute chief executive Hazel Sutherland and head of legal Jan Riise.
The embittered Mr Clark has described the verdict of the commission’s chief investigating officer Stuart Allan as a “charter for anarchy”. Mr Cluness is on holiday. Mr Simpson has also refused to accept Mr Allan’s report. We do not know what Ms Sutherland and Mr Riise think but it seems fair to assume they believe that council officials are now vulnerable to further public attack by outspoken councillors. Predictably enough, Dr Wills was delighted at the outcome.
The two-day public hearing by the Accounts Commission due at the end of June has many issues to focus on (Mr Clark’s appointment, behaviour and payoff; the ability or otherwise of councillors to make and abide by difficult decisions; relationships between councillors and officials; and, surely at the bottom of the pile, the grouping of the council’s accounts with those of Shetland Charitable Trust). But at the heart of the matter are fundamentally – and deeply entrenched – opinions on the ability of the council’s political leaders and senior officials to run the authority effectively.
As this column has often pointed out, the council has many flaws. But the fundamentals are sound: good services continue to be delivered well and financial management is sound at a hugely difficult time for public funds (cf Aberdeen City Council).
One possible course of action for the Accounts Commission is to put in a new senior management team and suspend some or all councillors. It will not resolve all the outstanding issues instantly, but appointing a properly-recruited interim chief executive who then must quickly gain the confidence of both councillors and those senior officials he or she wishes to retain is, perhaps, the only way to avoid such a scenario. Mr Cluness might help too if he resigns as convener.