The Shetland public should be very alarmed that the trustees of the Shetland Charitable Trust are now seriously considering a new 15-member constitution that would give a rump of seven elected councillors the power to appoint eight privately vetted “independent” trustees who’d decide the trust’s spending.
This fundamentally anti-democratic proposal would hand control of the trust’s oil funds – and the potentially huge new windfarm revenues – to an unrepresentative group of “trusties”.
Those who advocate a hand-picked majority of unelected trustees fear that holding an open election for the eight non-councillor posts might produce “random” results (although some of these opponents of a democratic trust are pretty random themselves, you might think). They allege there aren’t enough well-qualified, public-spirited citizens likely to want to volunteer for the honour of being trusted guardians of the public’s wealth.
The Undemocrats believe selection, rather than election, will give the trust “the range of skills and experience” it needs. This reflects a serious misunderstanding about the nature of the Shetland Charitable Trust. It might be appropriate to fill a small family trust or a single-purpose private trust with lawyers, accountants and “human resources” geeks, but the Shetland Charitable Trust is a public trust. The most important attribute for a public trustee is that he or she is trusted by the community to represent their interests when spending millions of pounds of public money a year.
Our trustees don’t need to be experts in accountancy or the finer points of charity law, although it’s handy if they are. They merely require intelligence, common sense and probity. If elected trustees need training, the trust can provide it. It already does. If there’s a shortage of some skills and experience, the trust can and does buy in professional expertise of the highest quality.
The Undemocrats’ insistence on selected, rather than elected, trustees reveals a disturbingly patronising attitude to their fellow citizens. It is, in a word, snobbery. They obviously don’t trust the thousands of Shetland residents who give their time, skills and experience to help run hundreds of voluntary organisations. To suggest that we couldn’t persuade just eight of these citizens to stand as truly independent trustees is contemptuous and insulting. However, if the cynical snobs are right and not enough candidates come forward for election, then the trust already has the power to co-opt suitable trustees. But at least we should try to hold democratic elections first. If a poll throws up some entirely unsuitable trustees, again the trust already has power to discipline, suspend or exclude them if their behaviour endangers the trust.
It’s clear that the Undemocrats intend to push through their fudged, embarrassing and damaging “reform” before the council elections next May (possibly as early as next month), and to do so without full public consultation on the final proposals. They’ll have a fight on their hands because some of us will do everything in our power to keep control of Shetland’s community funds in the hands of elected representatives, be they councillor-trustees or directly-elected trustees, because they alone can be truly independent and accountable, rather than the creatures of a discredited clique.
Gary Robinson and Jonathan Wills
Shetland Charitable Trust.