Former SIC chief executive David Clark claimed today he inherited a “rudderless” local authority and warned that it would take a fresh set of elections before the council is able to move on from the damaging events of the past year.
Giving his evidence to the Accounts Commission’s two-day public hearing this morning, Mr Clark said there was a small group of councillors who had an “agenda” and were going to “keep disrupting things” until they got their way irrespective of the democratic decisions taken by members.
It also emerged from members of the commission panel that £230,500 of the settlement paid to Mr Clark had been for “personal injury and injury to feelings”. As an example of the “kind of personal hurt” he had suffered, the former chief executive referred to an incident involving licensing board chairman Cecil Smith “acting on rumour and innuendo” by raising the untrue allegation that Mr Clark and his partner had been ejected from a local pub for having sex in the toilet.
Mr Clark blamed arch enemy Jonathan Wills and his close ally Gary Robinson for what he described as their “collusion” in bringing about a tabloid newspaper article about Mr Clark’s private life earlier this year. The article was the trigger which prompted the negotiation of a settlement for Mr Clark to leave the council in February with a substantial payoff. Both Dr Wills and Mr Robinson strongly deny having been involved in bringing The Sun to Shetland.
Asked by panellists how the council can get itself back on the “right road”, Mr Clark said it would be very difficult, particularly in light of the aforementioned councillors being cleared by the Standards Commission of breaching the councillors’ code of conduct. He has previously described the ruling which cleared Dr Wills as a “charter for anarchy”.
“It is impossible until there are new council elections,” he said. “The leaks will continue. Everybody knew this hearing was being held on Monday and Tuesday this week, and yet last week Gary Robinson launched a public attack on the monitoring officer. Nothing is changing. If you say it is in the public interest you can do what you like.”
Referring to the £285,000 settlement he received, Mr Clark said the first time he had engaged legal advice was in late January and he had “never had any desire” to get into a legal battle with the council. He said his lawyers opened negotiations based on legal advice to the SIC in November about statements in public about officials, which Dr Wills and Mr Robinson had “failed to abide by”.
Mr Clark said Dr Wills had launched a “continuing barrage of attacks on my competency” from an early stage, referring to Dr Wills “castigating” head of planning Iain McDiarmid over a planning application for the new Anderson High School shortly after Mr Clark started in the job. Because the official could not answer back, Mr Clark explained he had issued a public statement to the effect that officials “should be treated with respect”.
Asked when he felt things started to go wrong for him, Mr Clark said he felt the “constant haranguing” began after the statement and suggested a Smirk cartoon in The Shetland Times at the time showing Mr Clark as the headmaster trying to put Dr Wills in his place had left the outspoken councillor feeling “humiliated”.
“Quite clearly that hurt the man, understandably so – he probably felt humiliated – and from that point on there was a constant barrage of attacks on myself at every level, be it in the chamber, which I can accept, through the media, be it gossip and rumour-mongering, be it colluding with the gutter press, or for that matter publishing satirical articles on the internet.”
Mr Clark said it was difficult to speculate on what other people’s motives were, but added: “To be perfectly frank, I think councillor Wills, for example, has the Trotskyite view of perpetual revolution whereby whatever is decided upon has to be overthrown before you can actually achieve anything.”
He said it became clear to him that, whatever happened, Dr Wills would find a way to attack him and “look for holes to see where we can destroy” and there was a group of councillors who had no intention to look at working together with other members for the good of the community.
Mr Clark also issued a fairly scathing assessment of the state the council was in before he arrived, saying he wanted to bring a “can deliver” attitude particularly with regard to capital projects. He said when he arrived at the council no-one could recall the last time all the heads of service had met.
“The council had lost its way in some respects,” he said. “It was rudderless, both in the elected area and indeed officials.”
Mr Clark said he had accepted from the off that the chief executive in Shetland is expected to perform a more public role within the community than chief executives elsewhere do, but he said the most substantive advice he had received from convener Sandy Cluness on how he should lead the council was to “get on and do it”.
He said that in hindsight there were some things he would have done differently: “I’m not here to say everything I’ve done was perfect.”
Over the deletion of assistant chief executive Willie Shannon’s post, he said there was “absolute clarity” that he had the delegated authority to take the decision and he had taken advice from the heads of human resources, legal and organisation development over the move.
“I did my best to ensure that I was following practice and procedure,” he said, adding that in hindsight, given Mr Shannon had been reserve candidate for the job, he should have sought permission to rope an external body into handling the matter.
The inquiry continues.