Nominations for prospective SIC councillors opened this week ahead of May’s election – a poll guaranteed to transform the political landscape as around half of the current batch of elected members exit the stage.
Tuesday saw the council hold a “democracy day” at Lerwick Town Hall, where interested parties came along to find out more about being a councillor. Those elected will face a series of unappetising decisions as the council seeks to make colossal spending cutbacks in the next two years.
SIC returning officer Jan Riise said the open day had gone “very well” and he was pleased that a number of young people had turned up to find out more.
“There were between 35 and 40 members of the public who came along,” Mr Riise said. “Some picked up nomination packs, others didn’t. Everybody that came felt the information supplied had enriched their knowledge of the election and what being a councillor was like. A number of councillors turned up and held little surgeries – that went quite well too.”
Betty Fullerton, the chairwoman of the key children’s services committee, this week confirmed she is to stand down. Her departure takes the number of members standing down ahead of the 3rd May ballot into double figures.
The former NHS Shetland chief, who first became a Central ward councillor in 2007, has been at the children’s services committee helm since last year. She told this newspaper she had decided her family had to come first.
“It has been a hard decision as I have a great interest in Shetland,” she said. “However, I have decided that at this time my family is more important.”
Only three existing councillors – Florence Grains, Robert Henderson and Cecil Smith – have yet to make their intentions known. Ten of the 22 are stepping down and a further nine are hoping to win another term.
Meanwhile, former Whalsay head teacher and current Shetland Arts chairman Jim Johnston has announced he will stand in the North Isles. He became Scotland’s youngest secondary head teacher in 1984 in the Western Isles, eventually spending 17 years teaching at Whalsay.
When living in Harris, he managed Leverhulme Memorial School, chaired the community’s council for social services and worked as an auxiliary coastguard. He and his wife Marilyn also owned a successful tearoom and restaurant in Tarbert until the birth of their son, Ross.
Mr Johnston spent two years as a senior education official with the SIC, which he said taught him a lot about how the council works.
He said: “My hope is that within the next council, there is a core of councillors with real ability and vision, with an urge to work as a team to get things done. I look forward with relish to the challenge of working with them, if elected.”
Mr Johnston believes Shetland is in a very strong position for future negotiations with Holyrood, Westminster and Brussels. Possible areas he would like to see discussed include the creation of restricted grounds around the islands for the local fishing fleet, whether Shetland can be granted tax benefits similar to those in the Channel Islands and whether it can keep income from renewable energy projects.
“Let us see how we can get the best deal for Shetland,” he said. “The current constitutional debate and its outcome with a vote in 2014 could put us in a very strong position. If, as Alex Salmond insists, the oil revenues are all down to geography, then, given oil field distribution, we must be in a strong position to benefit.”
The SNP has confirmed the identity of its candidates for the two Lerwick wards. Teacher Danus Skene, 67, will stand in Lerwick North while nurse Iain Morrison, 42, will run in Lerwick South. It is possible a third SNP candidate might run in the South Mainland.
Mr Skene, one of this newspaper’s Spaekalation columnists, was an independent councillor in Perthshire in the 1980s. He stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate four times, most recently for the Liberal Democrats in Moray in 1987.
His teaching experience has encompassed senior management positions, including sitting on the board of the Scottish Qualifications Authority and running two schools overseas. He continues to work to support schools in Kenya.
Mr Morrison has worked for NHS Shetland as a staff nurse on wards, in A+E and in operating theatres. Latterly he has had an educational role, supporting nurse training including working in partnership with Shetland College.
Well known on the Shetland music scene, Mr Morrison has participated in the Shetland Folk Festival and performed at various special events. In common with Gussie Angus, who is standing down from the same Lerwick South constituency, he teaches bagpipes to young people.
Mr Skene said: “This is an important election in Shetland: there are big decisions ahead, and the seas are rough. There are two basic reasons why the SNP is entering the fray.
“First, Scottish independence offers Shetland a great opportunity. An SNP presence on the council will enable us to secure good relations with the Scottish government, achieving the best deals for Shetland. We will work to ensure that a high degree of centralised autonomy for Shetland is written into a future Scottish constitution.
“Secondly, voters need to know openly the political ideals and ambitions of their candidates and councillors. The SNP has sound policies in place to improve public services, and to deliver them through effective local government that can make its own mind up.
“The SNP insists on the highest standards of personal conduct in public life. If elected, Ian and I will be happy to be held to account by voters as SNP councillors.”
A fortnight ahead of the deadline for nominations, no other political parties have announced they will be fielding candidates. This week Maurice Mullay said the Conservatives, for whom Clive Richardson stood unsuccessfully in the Central ward by-election in December, would not be contesting any seats.
Scalloway community councillor and retired SIC accountant John Hunter said he was “99 per cent certain” he would stand in the Central ward, where by-election winner David Sandison is the only other confirmed name so far. Mr Hunter was unsuccessful in the same ward at the 2007 election.
Definitely not in the running is colourful former council chief executive David Clark, who recently wrote in Shetland Life that he felt SIC cutbacks were much too drastic.
Speaking from London this week, Mr Clark said there was far too much going on with his company, Dalzell Projects, though he did not dismiss the idea that he might stand at a future election.
Among those weighing up their options are Millgaet Media mogul Malcolm Younger, who said yesterday he was thinking about standing but it was “a big decision that can’t be taken lightly”. A contrasting media figure, former Shetland Times editor Vaila Wishart, is also giving the idea some thought.
Last week Theo Smith, Jim Reyner, George Smith, Malcolm Bell and Steven Coutts all threw their hats into the ring. Ex-councillor Drew Ratter and Sustainable Shetland chairman Billy Fox had previously announced their candidacies.
Mr Coutts, 29, was born and raised in Yell. His varied career has encompassed working in the aquaculture, business support, retail and youth sectors. Through his own business consultancy he assists small businesses and social enterprises, and undertakes work on behalf of the Energy Saving Trust.
He is married to physiotherapist Cathrine, and the couple have a young son, Rasmie. Mr Coutts is treasurer of Shetland Football Association and is involved in the community’s credit union.
He is standing for the North Isles, where “unfortunately the challenges and barriers” faced by organisations and businesses “keep mounting up”.
Mr Coutts said: “The next council has a lot of tough decisions to make over the next term and personally it would be all too easy to sit back and accept what comes. I, however, feel passionately that I can bring a positive new perspective to the council.
“I have become increasingly frustrated at the continued centralisation, lack of vision, and the speed and scale of the proposed cuts which will impact on some of the most vulnerable people in Shetland – cuts that are largely being proposed without sufficient assessment of their wider social and environmental impacts.”
Following the election count fiasco in 2007, when local government and Scottish Parliament elections were held simultaneously and many thousands of ballot papers were spoiled, new procedures are in place.
The count will begin at 9am on Friday 4th May and, all being well, Mr Riise anticipates counting in all seven wards should be completed by around lunchtime.
• Nominations must be lodged no later than 4pm on Thursday 29th March, and Mr Riise said anyone who wanted more information could either visit the SIC’s office at 4 Market Street in Lerwick or call (01595) 744554. There is also information on the council’s website at www.shetland.gov.uk/elections.