The breakdown in relationships between SIC councillors and officials is “a two-way street” and some officials have been “less than respectful” in their dealings with members, according to councillor Gary Robinson.
Mr Robinson told the Accounts Commission’s two-day hearing that he had been talking for some time about the need for “truth and reconciliation” among those involved in the destabilising events of the past year.
He was appearing alongside five fellow councillors who submitted a formal complaint to convener Sandy Cluness about former chief executive David Clark’s conduct in office. The complaint was leaked to the media, but Mr Robinson said there would have been nothing to be gained by the six councillors revealing its details. Indeed, it would have been “entirely detrimental” to their cause.
Speaking more generally, he said some councillors had felt at times there was no option but to voice their feelings on certain issues publicly out of “sheer frustration” after receiving “less than respectful” responses or, in some cases, no response at all to enquiries to officials.
In his submission, Mr Robinson said he was concerned that officials appeared to be following “a party line” and he told panel members he felt work needed to be done to ensure correct procedures are followed as a matter of course within the SIC. He added that there “always [seems to be] an assumption that it’s a member” that is leaking confidential details to the press.
Mr Robinson and close ally Jonathan Wills were repeatedly asked if they felt their criticisms of Mr Clark had constituted a breach of the councillors’ code of conduct. Dr Wills – who was cleared of such a charge by the Standards Commission last month – reacted angrily to that line of questioning, saying if panel members believed that to be the case then they should submit a complaint against him themselves.
Dr Wills said he accepted there was a need to rebuild relationships but he was finding that difficult because of the “vexatious complaint” to the Standards Commission. The complaint was made by convener Sandy Cluness, vice-convener Josie Simpson, deputy chief Hazel Sutherland, head of legal Jan Riise and Mr Clark.
He said it was difficult to work with people who “appear to have withheld evidence”, referring to his accusation that Mr Clark had threatened him with violence in a phone call, and said Mr Cluness had treated him with “hostility and condescension” since he was elected in early 2008.
Dr Wills hit out at Mr Clark’s submission to the hearing, which he described as “fantasy”, particularly rejecting the suggestion that he and Mr Robinson had been instrumental in bringing a reporter from The Sun newspaper to Shetland ahead of an article it published in January about Mr Clark‘s private life.
He said he had met a journalist from the tabloid and tried to get him interested in what he saw as the political failings of the council, but had told him that the chief executive’s private life was “none of my business”. Dr Wills added: “I will not be smeared by this man [Mr Clark] any longer.”
Gussie Angus backed Mr Robinson’s call for members to meet together privately to discuss a way forward for the next two years “in a mature and adult fashion”.
The panel suggested that councillors needed to find ways of working together in the future which would allow them to disagree on issues “without being disagreeable about it”.
The six councillors were in broad agreement that the council’s number one priority was getting its finances under control. The local authority is attempting to save £10 million in 2010/11 and will have to hack even more from its annual spend next year.
Referring to an earlier suggestion from Audit Scotland staff that there appeared to be a lot of onus on playing the “blame” game, Mr Angus said he felt “a lot more unites us than divides us” as councillors but that it was not possible to move on entirely “until we can deal with the baggage we’re all carrying”.
With regard to the meeting at which members gave Cosla and their external lawyers the authority to negotiate a settlement with Mr Clark, Mr Robinson said he did not consider the final settlement “bore any resemblance” to what he had signed up to on 19th February.
He suggested the council had failed to clearly define the “power, authority and budget” for the £285,000 payoff to be made and he had expected the deal to go back before councillors for final sanctioning, which did not happen. “There was no clarity as to how much that deal was going to cost,” he said. “It effectively could have been a blank cheque.”
Another of the six complainants, Cecil Smith, said he did not want to see Mr Cluness blamed for what happened because he had “found himself very isolated” over the complaint against Mr Clark. “We shouldn’t point the finger at him.”
Dr Wills said he had backed some of Mr Clark’s initiatives, most notably the installation of Robert Sinclair as head of capital programme as the SIC wrestles with a host of major infrastructure projects on its wish list.
In the closing remark on the first of two days of evidence another of the six, Andrew Hughson, explained he had taken part in a couple of “very agreeable” meetings with Mr Clark earlier in his tenure.
Mr Hughson last year raised concern about the manner in which Mr Clark appointed a former business associate, Andrew Laidler, to carry out a review of the new Anderson High School project. “I am not responsible [for what happened],” said Mr Hughson. “The blame lies with David Clark himself.”
Mr Clark will give his evidence to the hearing at 10am on Tuesday morning.