Former fisherman Josie Simpson was chosen as the SIC’s new political leader by an overwhelming majority of councillors this afternoon.
Having defeated former services committee chairman Gussie Angus by 16 votes to four, Mr Simpson – who has been a councillor since 2002 – will be charged with providing the sort of strong political leadership and direction which the Accounts Commission last year said had been badly lacking in recent times.
Mr Simpson will take charge until fresh council elections in May 2012, when convener Sandy Cluness is due to retire. In the meantime Mr Cluness will remain as convener, but his role will be restricted to chairing council meetings and undertaking ambassadorial, civic and ceremonial functions on behalf of the community.
During a 90-minute meeting at Lerwick Town Hall Mr Angus offered his “gracious congratulations” to Shetland’s newly appointed leader who, following a warm round of applause from other members, said: “It’s a great honour to be voted in, and I hope I don’t let you down.”
Earlier in the meeting, Mr Simpson had acknowledged the past two years had been “a very difficult time”. He was pleased with the rebuilding process underway as part of chief executive Alistair Buchan’s “improvement plan” in response to the scathing report from the commission last year.
Given that he was vice-convener during the debacle surrounding the appointment and subsequent payoff of former chief executive David Clark, there will be some who will question whether Mr Simpson’s promotion represents much of a political revolution. Indeed, councillor Jonathan Wills had earlier called for “a new pilot and a new commander” to go with the rest of Mr Buchan’s reforms.
Mr Simpson said he would look to establish a “clear political direction” and said his door would always be open to every councillor. Vowing to improve communication with the public, he stressed the importance of maintaining Shetland’s nest egg of oil funds for future generations.
“We have to make sure we protect that reserves for our bairns and grandbairns,” he said. “I trust that we can go forward for the good of Shetland.”
Florence Grains was the only councillor to dissent from the new twin leadership structure, saying she believed a local authority of only 22 members was “far too small” for such an arrangement and there was no need to pay a councillor “just to shake hands with somebody”. She was unable to raise any support.
Other changes approved by councillors included what many believe to be long overdue reform of the SIC’s committee structure. With the gargantuan services and infrastructure committees broken up, four new committees have been created and an executive committee is to be formed consisting of Mr Cluness, Mr Simpson, the four chairmen/women and an additional five members.
Some of the appointments have been deferred until 23rd March, but several key roles were decided. Central ward councillor Betty Fullerton narrowly defeated Bill Manson by 10-9, with one abstention, to take charge of the children, families and learning committee, which incorporates the crucial education brief.
Lerwick South councillor Cecil Smith has been appointed as chairman of the communities, health and wellbeing committee, whose broad remit includes social care, housing, poverty, the voluntary sector, arts, culture, leisure and sport.
Following Mr Simpson’s promotion to leader, development committee vice-chairman Alastair Cooper will fill his shoes as chair of the renamed economy and development committee.
Central ward member Iris Hawkins, who was absent from the meeting following an unfortunate fall on the pavement which landed her in the Gilbert Bain’s casualty ward, has been nominated as chairwoman of the environment committee. That has responsibility for heritage, roads, transport, ferries and building services.
Councillor Jonathan Wills, who had been lobbying for a number of years for structural change, said he was “delighted” with Mr Buchan’s proposals. It had been a “long journey” and one, he said, caused by “repeated political failures” over the past eight years including a serious lack of budgetary discipline.
He believes the new structure will provide a strengthened political executive and subject it to “effective controls”. He said the convener’s new “civic head” role would take the form of an impartial defender of councillors’ rights and was akin to a joint president/speaker of the house position.
However, Dr Wills – employing a liberal sprinkling of maritime metaphors – had also called for “a new pilot and a new commander” to go in tandem with the “major refit to the good ship SIC”, rather than “the same old faces using the same old charts”.