The ugly dispute which led to the payoff to David Clark and tarnished Shetland Islands Council’s reputation could have been nipped in the bud had outside help been sought last year.
MP Alistair Carmichael told the Accounts Commission inquiry in Lerwick today he had spoken to convener Sandy Cluness in September in a bid to defuse the escalating row after Mr Clark tried to delete Willie Shannon’s post of assistant chief executive.
The MP said it would have been difficult for the council’s monitoring officer Jan Riise to challenge Mr Clark, his boss, as to whether he had followed proper personnel procedures. Instead he had advised it would be sensible to seek assistance from outwith the council to look at the problem and with a view to sorting out the evident weaknesses in personnel procedures.
The advice was not acted upon. He said: “It pains me to say that had that been done at the time we might not have had many of the difficulties which followed subsequently.”
However, Mr Carmichael agreed with a suggestion from the Commission that the same flawed personnel systems meant Mr Shannon should not have been appointed to his job in the first place in 2006 when the post was not advertised, no job description was drawn up and nor was anybody interviewed for it.
He admitted that constituents had quizzed him as to why he chosen to involve himself in council staffing affairs when the same situation had prevailed for years for different senior jobs. He said he now regretted not having spoken up about the practice previously.
Flawed procedures led to the paying off of another short-lived chief executive, Nick Reiter, in 1999 but it was generally agreed during the inquiry that the lessons learnt then had been forgotten in subsequent years.
Mr Carmichael said the council needed a “culture change” and had to stop paying insufficient regard to rules and procedures.
MSP Tavish Scott told the inquiry everyone could understand why a new post-holder like Mr Clark would want new colleagues with him, as happens all the time in national politics.
But he defended his, and Mr Carmichael’s controversial decision to intervene in the council’s mishandling of the Shannon affair and their eventual reporting of the council to Audit Scotland.
It was the only time they had got involved publicly in a staffing matter, he said, and it had been as a result of an appeal for help from constituents. He hoped it would never happen again but the set of circumstances in the case had been different. “I don’t think we had any choice in what we did.”
Both politicians recalled how they were bombarded with complaints from constituents about Mr Shannon’s treatment and then the huge uproar about the pay-off to Mr Clark. Mr Scott said even when he shopped in a supermarket in Lerwick he would be assailed by people. “In every aisle I was getting it!”
Later in the day’s proceedings Mr Cluness disputed the MP and MSP’s claims about the intensity of public outrage. He said that was borne out by the few members of the public who had attended the two-day inquiry being far outnumbered by the inquiry witnesses. A room set aside downstairs for visitors with a live camera feed of the proceedings had remained empty.
When the Commission asked the MP and MSP about the problem of frequent leaks of confidential council information to the media, Mr Carmichael diagnosed them as a symptom of the problems in the local authority rather than the disease itself.
He followed with a suggested cure: “If you have proper leadership and due regard for proper governance then the leaks would stop.”
In his experience leaks were normally made either to cause embarrassment, to settle a score or because information was being kept secret inappropriately.
He said when an organisation was enduring sustained criticism, people within it tended to “withdraw into the bunker” and withhold information, which prompted leaks. There was a morale problem among council staff, he had been told.
Mr Scott also called on councillors to show more leadership. He suggested bringing back the old committee system that the local authority did away with in the 1990s, creating separate dedicated committees for housing, education, social work and other matters. This, he said, would encourage councillors to take more control and responsibility for policy and setting the agenda.
The public hated seeing councillors overturning their own decisions, he said, or not taking important decisions on projects at all. Endless sagas like that which has plagued the new Anderson High School led the public to think that something was not right with the council.
But he warned against putting huge pressure on the new chief executive Alistair Buchan by continuing the tendency of viewing the arrival of new top official as “a new dawn”.
He said Shetland was a very unforgiving place for council officials because they were generally well-known, which could put them under “an intolerable burden”.
Mr Carmichael agreed with a suggestion from the Commission that at such a time of cutbacks in services it was even more important for the council to have good systems of governance. He said this country had lived through a golden age of public expenditure but it was now coming to a time of exceptional financial restraint when it would be essential that people saw fair systems were in place for spending the money. “It’s easy to gloss over the procedures if there’s plenty to give out to everyone,” he said.