Outspoken councillor Jonathan Wills says he fears the Accounts Commission’s two-day hearing into the crisis surrounding Shetland Islands Council will be a “whitewash” and a “pretend inquiry”.
Dr Wills made his remarks after the commission rejected what he described as “many pages of crucial evidence about the political mismanagement of the council”. That led him to conclude that the hearing – to be held on 28th and 29th June – will be “fatally compromised”.
Shetland Islands Council members made a joint submission yesterday having discussed a range of issues in a private session last Thursday.
In a statement, convener Sandy Cluness said: “Part of the arrangements for the hearing is that councillors are able to provide a written submission, up to four pages in length. Councillors met last Thursday to discuss the content of the submission. That has been drawn together and is what’s been sent away today [Monday].”
Those wishing to make a submission prior to the hearing were asked to confine themselves to four sheets of A4 paper, which Dr Wills did but also included a list of 24 documents in a separate appendix. He said the commission has rejected his submission and asked him to remove reference to the additional documents, but he is refusing to do so.
In a press statement, the Lerwick South member – who has been no stranger to controversy since his re-election two years ago – said: “They’ve told me they won’t accept any confidential evidence and have asked me to amend my submission by tomorrow night [Wednesday], removing footnotes referring to documents I appended with my covering letter.
“So this can only be a pretend inquiry and a whitewash, because if they don’t see all the evidence they can’t possibly find out what really happened. For example, how can they understand the ‘Clark affair’ or the council’s financial settlement with the former chief executive [David Clark] if they don’t see the documents?”
Dr Wills’ submission is critical of the settlement with Mr Clark, which saw him receive a tax-free payoff of £250,000 to leave the SIC in February. He said the agreement included “many objectionable clauses” which were “not approved by the majority of councillors before signature”.
He wrote: “It is extraordinary that only a handful of councillors have taken the opportunity to study this agreement, which, in my view, paid out over £300,000 with very little justification and . . . collectively accused councillors of misdemeanours we did not commit.
“I’d hoped the public inquiry would be the end of this tiresome business but now it seems we may have to ask higher authority to investigate and determine who’s responsible for the serial incompetence that has characterised the council’s political leadership for the past seven years and has cost Shetland so many millions of pounds.”
Meanwhile, Dr Wills’ close political ally Gary Robinson has also published his contribution to the hearing, in which he voices concern about the deterioration in working relationships between members and some key officials.
Although he does not name any names, Mr Robinson said on local radio last week that he was unhappy at effectively being told “you’re on your own, pal” by the council’s legal department over a complaint against him to the Standards Commission, which recently cleared him of breaching the councillors’ code of conduct in remarks he made relating to fellow councillor Caroline Miller last December.
Mrs Miller paid tribute to monitoring officer Jan Riise last week for the “exemplary” advice he had provided over a complaint against her. She was also cleared of any wrongdoing by the Standards Commission.
But Mr Robinson states: “Advice on good governance should come from officials but there has been an absence of this to the extent some officials seem to have been following an official ‘party line’ instead of representing the interests of the council as a whole . . . It is important that all members feel they are being well served by officers properly adhering to council procedures.”
As with Dr Wills, Mr Robinson voices grave reservations about the council’s handling of major capital projects, specifically the never-ending saga of the new Anderson High School and cinema and music venue Mareel. He also criticises the process for appointing Mr Clark last May, saying there “appeared to be anomalies in the short-listing”.
More generally, Mr Robinson states: “The events of the last year have been very difficult for a number of people and the council hasn’t done itself or the community any favours. We have to move ahead but in order to do so we have to speak up and face up to these issues collectively as a council if we are going to be able to deliver for the community in the remaining two years of the council.”
A number of other interested parties, including Mr Clark, Mrs Miller and councillor Bill Manson, are also understood to have made individual submissions ahead of the hearing, while isles MP Alistair Carmichael and MSP Tavish Scott have prepared a joint submission.
Mr Manson said last week he was planning, as chairman of Shetland Charitable Trust, to address the matter of Audit Scotland qualifying the council’s books every year because it does not group its accounts with those of the charitable trust. It is one of a range of issues which the hearing is expected to look into.
All written submissions will be published on the Accounts Commission’s website on Monday 21st June, a week before the hearing, at www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/about/ac/shetland.php