SIC convener Sandy Cluness should stand down because he has been “largely responsible” for a series of errors that have brought the council into disrepute, South Mainland councillor Allison Duncan declared today.
Mr Duncan took the unusual step of issuing a statement calling for Mr Cluness to fall on his sword but said he had “told him so to his face and in front of my fellow councillors”.
His intervention comes in light of the critical report into the council by the Accounts Commission, which identified an absence of clear, decisive and consistent leadership among councillors and officials and a “haphazard” approach to governance, and ahead of a crucial Full Council meeting next week at which interim chief executive Alistair Buchan will outline a series of proposed reforms and restore confidence to the beleaguered authority.
Mr Duncan said he believed a vote of confidence in Mr Cluness was “the only way” for him to continue in his role as council leader, although he did not state that he was proposing such a motion and was uncontactable this afternoon.
Mr Duncan’s demand won backing from Shetland West member Gary Robinson, who also called for vice-convener Josie Simpson to resign. Councillor Jonathan Wills, who earlier in the summer vowed to bury the hatchet with Mr Cluness, said the convener had lost the support of the public and should seek a new mandate.
Mr Duncan’s statement said: “It is with regret that I am today calling on convener Sandy Cluness to resign his post. I have told him so to his face and in front of my fellow councillors.
“I do this because, notwithstanding the convener’s long record of public service, my reading of the Accounts Commission report into the affairs of Shetland Islands Council makes it plain, to me at least, that the convener has presided over, and largely been responsible for, a catalogue of serious errors that have brought this council into disrepute.
“I believe he has lost the confidence of the majority of the electorate. As I see it, the only way he can continue as convener is if he now seeks a vote of confidence from his fellow councillors who, like me, will know what their constituents are telling them and, I hope, vote accordingly.
“I have thought long and hard about this and wish to avoid personal unpleasantness but I have come to the conclusion that my duty is to speak out and ‘tell it like it is’. The convener should do the honourable thing and resign.”
Speaking from Edinburgh, Mr Robinson said he sympathised with Mr Duncan’s position. He said it would be “very difficult” for the council to move ahead and adopt the commission’s recommendations under the current leadership.
“The [Accounts Commission] report was particularly critical of the leadership of the council. I think it’s unfair to tar everybody with the same stick and say we’re all responsible for the leadership of the council. I think the problems have come about under the leadership of Sandy Cluness and Josie Simpson.
“I really do think we need to move ahead. We’ve got the Accounts Commission coming back within a year, and we need to make progress on important issues.”
Mr Duncan is the first councillor to openly call for Mr Cluness’ head since the report was published.
At the time Mr Cluness vowed to work with his colleagues to implement the commission’s recommendations.
Mr Cluness has consistently said he would step down if a majority of members called on him to go.
Mr Robinson said the point was coming near when Mr Cluness would have to recognise he was losing support from within the chamber.
“I think the sand beneath the waggons has been circled. He will try and draw support from where he can, but it’s not in the council’s best interests, or in Shetland’s best interests, for him to remain.”
Dr Wills said: “It would be in the convener’s best interest to seek a new mandate. This report is really bad. In many cases, it’s wrong, but where it is valid it is very serious.”
In a line-by-line response to the Accounts Commission report, sent to Scottish finance minister John Swinney this week, Dr Wills takes issue with many of the conclusions reached by the commissioners, particularly in relation to critcisms of councillors as a group.
For example, in response to the comment about haphazard governance he agrees with the comment but states: “But whose ‘approach’ and whose fault is it? Can it be the fault of those of us who for over two years have repeatedly tried in vain to debate the future governance of the council at the audit and scrutiny committee and at the Full Council? I am left wondering if the commission has actually read the evidence submitted to it …” Full details can be seen here [PDF – 242 KB].
During the hearing in the summer the commission took evidence on a number of different matters, including the circumstances surrounding the arrival and departure of former chief executive David Clark.
Mr Clark left the council with a controversial £285,000 pay-off in February after a stormy nine month period in the job. His departure caused major discontent among many members of the public.