I see someone has been talking to one of Rupert Murdoch’s comics about an ironical gesture I made at a recent secret council meeting, in protest at the dictatorial behaviour of the chair, vice-convener Josie Simpson. Mr Simpson does not appreciate irony, so my protest backfired. Of course, I immediately apologised for any offence caused, but the public may like to know how the problem came about.
As chair of the meeting and leader of the council, Mr Simpson had allowed an official to bring forward “as a matter of urgency” a proposal that the council should spend up to £200,000 on buying a residential property – specifically to accommodate visiting consultants.
This was a particularly outrageous suggestion at a time when we have a serious housing shortage and the worst financial crisis the council has ever faced. I therefore moved a resolution that we should not enter negotiations to buy the property. It is normal procedure in any democratic assembly, be it a council, a parliament, or the annual general meeting of a budgie club, for the mover of a resolution to speak first, outlining the main points of his or her argument. The mover of any amendment or counter-proposal then gets to explain why he or she thinks the resolution is mistaken. After that, when everyone knows what are the issues and the arguments for and against, the debate is opened to all. At the end of the debate the mover of the amendment sums up, followed by the mover of the resolution, and then the matter is put to the vote. That’s how it’s always been – until this council hired a consultant who thought he knew a better way.
In recent months, the convener, the chair of education and now the vice-convener have seen fit to overturn this normal, traditional democratic procedure, which every Shetland council has followed since the beginning of public democracy in these islands in the 19th century. This is the third occasion when I’ve been prevented from making a speech to introduce a resolution that I had proposed. Each time the chairs told me that it was their prerogative to say who should speak and when. Mr Simpson told me he could run the meeting as he chose. All of them appear to be under the impression that the council’s new standing orders give them the power to overturn the usual rules of debate. They are mistaken. I will continue to protest if they act in this dictatorial manner. I will also continue to oppose absurd measures such as the proposed house purchase, which a majority of 12 members supported at last week’s meeting. No wonder they wanted to keep it secret.