Councillors have sprung to the defence of SIC head of finance Graham Johnston after he came in for flak in last week’s scathing report from the Accounts Commission.
The report raised reservations over the “level and quality of budget information” being made available to councillors, but gave no specific instances of inadequate financial guidance being provided.
During Monday’s audit and scrutiny committee meeting in Lerwick Town Hall, councillor Jonathan Wills was one of several to express their annoyance at the criticism levelled at Mr Johnston, stating he had full confidence in the finance chief’s abilities.
Mr Johnston’s contributions in dealing with the concerns of Audit Scotland and the Accounts Commission have been “intelligent, well-informed and spirited” and it is “grossly unfair to a conscientious and hard-working public servant” that he was singled out for criticism, Dr Wills writes in this week’s Shetland Times (see letters pages).
Councillor Allison Duncan went a step further, suggesting that commission chairman John Baillie and his “cohorts” should issue a public apology to Mr Johnston.
In order to formally respond to the commission’s findings, members are due to meet publicly some time in the next few weeks. The council is legally bound to deliver a response by November.
During his first public meeting with councillors, new SIC chief executive Alistair Buchan said the organisation must guard against “fragmentation” and make sure it doesn’t get bogged down in too much detail as it seeks to address a range of serious concerns contained in last week’s report.
Mr Buchan said it was “essential” that the whole council took an interest in the criticisms contained in the report, which identified deficiencies in vision, leadership, strategic direction, governance, financial management and accountability.
Now three weeks into the job having been appointed on secondment from Orkney Islands Council for two and a half years to replace David Clark, Mr Buchan’s main task is to try and restore some much-needed stability within the SIC after a torrid year or so.
Mr Buchan said he was working “as hard and as fast as I can” on how to address perceived shortcomings in how the council is governed, a matter he views as a “big and very important issue”.
He had been discussing possible ways forward with other local authorities which had previously found themselves in similar circumstances. During those discussions he had identified a “real risk” of the council being distracted away from reorganisation by getting bogged down in individual areas of strategy.
“I am very worried about the potential for fragmentation,” Mr Buchan said. “We can’t take any of these issues in isolation; they need to be viewed in the round and I can’t stress that point sufficiently. I am determined to make sure that we have a sensible and coherent set of plans and strategies.”
Dr Wills, who has persistently voiced his frustration at the lack of progress on changing how the council is governed, said he wanted to see a “detailed, logically argued” paper from the council leadership, assisted by staff, to contribute to the debate on restructuring.
“We haven’t really got anywhere with this,” said Dr Wills, who produced his own paper in April last year suggesting breaking up the services committee into separate education and social care committees and reducing the array of forums and sub-committees which members sit on. He also suggested splitting the role of convener between two functions, creating separate political and civic heads.
Mr Duncan and councillors Laura Baisley and Caroline Miller were in agreement that the services committee ought to be broken up. Mrs Miller said the committee was “too cumbersome”, while Ms Baisley said it was “frustrating that we don’t have adequate time to discuss reports” about important matters like community care.
? The Accounts Commission this week launched the first in a series of new publications designed to help steer councils through the tough financial pressures they are facing.
Roles and working relationships: are you getting it right? is an attempt to add clarity about how members and officials can best conduct relationships with each other.
Commission chairman John Baillie said: “Councillors and officers are at the heart of local government policy and delivery and how they work together is fundamental to success.
“Councils are rising to the challenge and working hard to keep delivering quality services that meet people’s needs, despite reduced funding and other pressures.
“As they face increasingly difficult choices it is vital that they have good working arrangements and relationships in place to support their activity.”