Shetland Islands Council’s former chief executive has heavily criticised the role played by convener Sandy Cluness and six other councillors in the events which led to him receiving a £250,000 tax-free pay-off in February.
In his submission to the Accounts Commission’s two-day hearing into the crisis surrounding the local authority, David Clark says Mr Cluness told him in January that he would not be pursuing a complaint submitted by six councillors containing a number of allegations about Mr Clark’s conduct. Mr Clark says the convener had indicated that this was because the complaint had “no merit”.
Mr Clark explains that he decided on 25th January that he was no longer prepared to continue in his job because an “inaccurate and derogatory” article which appeared in The Sun newspaper two days earlier had “resulted from councillor collusion” and because of the “devastating impact of such gross intrusion in the lives of my loved ones”.
He also suggests that Mr Cluness had decided to act to ensure Mr Clark’s departure from the council “because his Up Helly Aa squad had been giving him a hard time” and “telling him to act” over the tabloid’s article about Mr Clark’s personal life.
Mr Clark explains that he reached agreement for the SIC to meet his legal fees to agree the settlement and then commenced action against the council which “largely reflected legal advice” from council lawyers in November of last year regarding the conduct of councillors.
He believes that a minority of elected members breached the councillors’ code of conduct in making publicly critical remarks about him. His most outspoken critic, Jonathan Wills, was recently cleared of breaching the code by the Standards Commission after a complaint from senior council officials, Mr Cluness and vice-convener Josie Simpson.
Mr Clark also criticses Mr Cluness’ decision to move that councillors reinstate the post of assistant chief executive Willie Shannon in December “having consistently supported the removal of the position, advising that it was my repsonsibility to action the deletion as a staffing matter”.
In total, 19 submissions have been put forward ahead of next week’s hearing and they all are available to read on the Accounts Commission’s website at: http://www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/about/ac/shetland_submissions.php
In a joint submission by councillors – agreed at a meeting 11 days ago – reference is made to advice from Cosla that the negotiated settlement with Mr Clark was the “best deal” even if “paying out any money in such circumstances is unwelcome”. The total cost to the taxpayer will be in excess of £400,000.
“The council faced significant financial risks, if it were to consider addressing concerns through any other route than mutually agreed separation,” the submission reads.
“The difficulties are highlighted in Audit Scotland’s report and the council acknowledges and regrets any actions and/or omissions on its part, which resulted in the payment being made. Members who took the decision carefully weighed up all the risks, legal issues, costs and reputational damage considerations.”
The decision was taken, the submission states, with the impact on the community at the “forefront”. It notes that “a minority” of members “still have reservations on the settlement”. Dr Wills’ submission, which he published last week, said the agreement included “many objectionable clauses”.
Mr Clark’s strongest rebuke is saved for Dr Wills, who he accused of attacking “myself, my staff, my loved ones and family with lies, innuendo and rumour” and of repeating “untrue claims despite several investigations vindicating me”.
Dr Wills had led a “hate campaign from my earliest weeks in the job” and “ridiculed me in public in the chamber”, continuing with the publication of the satirical “Ken Speckle Papers” online.
He writes: “Cllr Wills’ behaviour both within and outwith the chamber is, in my assessment, the single most disruptive factor SIC faced and continues to face as she attempts to conduct her business for the good of the people of Shetland.”
Mr Clark also heavily criticises Dr Wills’ close political ally Gary Robinson for “boasting” publicly of his involvement in The Sun’s article and over being one of those who queried the veracity of his CV. “Despite malicious accusations, not one of the achievements in my CV or references has been found to be false or embellished.”
He also criticises the other four signatories of the complaint against him in December, Gussie Angus, Allison Duncan, Andrew Hughson and Cecil Smith but makes clear that he had “no issue” with any of the local authority’s other 15 councillors.
Meanwhile, a submission from experienced councillor Bill Manson highlights what he sees as a “major difficulty” the council faces in recruiting chief executives. He explains that the system “compels us to recruit externally” and the salary structure in local government means that “the people one would ideally like to apply are virtually debarred by the fact that they would be taking a salary cut if they were successful”.
“This leads to a field of applicants drawn from the third and lower tiers. We get substantial numbers of candidates but not necessarily of the quality, experience or background we would desire. The result is either failure to recruit or a markedly greater chance of employing the wrong person. It does not excuse any shortcomings in our selection process but it gives an extra dimension of difficulty.”
It is understood that the appointment of a new interim chief executive to serve a term of two-and-a-half years is imminent, with Orkney Islands Council chief executive Alistair Buchan one of those in the frame. Council officials are hopeful that a new figure can be in place before the hearing commences in one week’s time.
Mr Clark’s father, Ian R. Clark, points out that relationships between chief executives and councillors in the isles have seen “consistent tension throughout the history of the council as well as in the later years of is predecessor, Zetland Islands Council”.
His submission criticises the way the news media has developed in Shetland, saying they provide a platform for the “broadcasting of lies, character assassination and cruel jibes”, while senior councillors “give little protection to their staff”.
A submission on behalf of four trade unions, the GMB, Unison, EIS and Unite, makes clear that members wish to see councillors bear in mind the “detrimental effect” their disputes can have on the smooth running of local government: “The council has dedicated staff who want to provide public services efficiently. To some extent they have been prevented from doing so because of the very public uproar created here since summer 2009.”