Respected council finance chief bows out after turbulent time at the top

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SIC finance chief Graham Johnston has been granted early retirement and will leave the local authority at the end of next month.

Mr Johnston, 51, has been number-crunching for the SIC for almost three decades and has been in his current post since May 2000. He will be putting away his abacus for the last time on 31st March. It comes at the end of what Mr Johnston acknowledged had been a “turbulent time” in the two years since Morgan Goodlad’s departure from Lerwick Town Hall.

With councillors due to discuss chief executive Alistair Buchan’s plans for overhauling the whole structure of senior management next month, a direct replacement is not being sought at this stage.

Mr Buchan paid tribute to a public servant who had led “a distinguished career” and stood as testament to the council’s ability to grow its own, having started out as a trainee accountant in 1981.

“The council and communities of Shetland undoubtedly owe Graham a debt of gratitude for his dedication and hard work in pursuit of financial sustainability for this council,” Mr Buchan said. “I’d like to take this opportunity to wish him all the very best with his future plans.”

Council convener Sandy Cluness described Mr Johnston as a “very widely-respected finance chief” who had always had the interests of the community at heart.

“Over the years councillors acknowledged his professionalism and were very grateful for his ability to put technical information into a format that was easy to understand,” he said.

“The thing that struck me about him was his clear desire to always do his best for the good of Shetland.”

Mr Johnston oversaw the council’s response to the post-9/11 market crash, which wiped millions of pounds off the value of its oil reserves.

He urged members to adopt a “steady as she goes” approach in reaction to the credit crunch and subsequent near-collapse of the UK’s banking sector. Councillors took his advice, which was to weather the storm and not panic by selling shares when they were at a low ebb. Since then the value of its stock market investments has recovered considerably.

Mr Johnston courted controversy in 2007 by giving his strong backing for the contentious Viking Energy windfarm during a public meeting in Aith. He continues to believe it is the isles’ best bet to maintain the standard of living provided by proceeds from the oil industry.

He was closely involved in last year’s negotiations with Total, which culminated in the oil and gas giant siting its £500 million gas processing plant next to the oil terminal at Sullom Voe.

“I’ve appreciated the opportunity to work in the council’s finance service for almost 30 years,” he stated. “It has often been challenging but also rewarding. I’ve worked with some excellent colleagues and have had the chance to contribute to some important deals with, for example, the oil and gas industry, as well as contributing to the long term planning and management of the Shetland community reserves.”

He acknowledged there had been a great deal of unrest within the local authority since Mr Goodlad departed almost two years ago. Mr Johnston applied for the SIC’s top job at that time but was one of several officials to be overlooked in favour of David Clark. The debacle surrounding Mr Clark’s appointment and subsequent payoff was a protracted episode which took its toll on all senior officials.

In addition, the departing finance chief had to contend with his own department being singled out for opprobrium during last year’s Accounts Commission hearing. Several councillors jumped to his defence after the commission condemned elements of the SIC’s financial performance.

Four months ago Mr Johnston talked of the need for more resources to help the department meet increased demands – in particular the requirement that local authorities meet international financial accounting standards. Following that, recently-retired Fife Council finance chief Brian Lawrie was brought in to help the department to implement Mr Buchan’s improvement plan.

Earlier this month Mr Johnston put forward proposals, adopted by SIC members, to cut around £9.5 million from its budget amid a UK-wide squeeze on public spending.

“The council has gone through a time of turbulence, and now needs to make substantial changes to face future challenges,” Mr Johnston said. “I felt the time was right for me to move on and let others address those long-term issues, and I’m pleased that the council have agreed to my request for early retirement.”

A known fan of classic cars, he is relishing the prospect of pursuing “personal interests and fresh challenges” and says he has “no plans beyond that”. Though it would be “unwise” to rule anything in or out, he said the notion of standing in next year’s council elections was “among the very last prospects for my future”.


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