Shetland Charitable Trust is weathering its latest constitutional storm, with critics of a move to cut council representation on the board to four describing the workings of the organisation as “farcical” and “undemocratic”.
Despite a claim by the trust that it has consulted Shetland Islands Council, the SIC says it has had no official approach or discussion with the trust, though talks have been taking place between officials.
Trust vice-chairman Jonathan Wills, who has circulated his own views on the structure of the trust, has being prevented tabling an amendment to the proposals, which follow a “lengthy and detailed review” of the current arrangements.
The trust on Tuesday announced it would consider further reducing its minority democratically elected membership (via the SIC) from the present seven, with the rest of the board made up of appointees selected by an “expert panel”.
The proposal, which would include keeping the number of trustees at 15, was supported by the Institute of Directors Scotland. It is felt that changing the ratio of councillors to appointees will further distance the trust from the SIC. The closeness of the two organisations had led to the trust’s substantial reorganisation in 2012.
But the consultation has been conducted at various committees, informal meetings and “working lunches” and unlike the consultation that preceded the reorganisation of four years ago, the public have been kept out of the process.
The trust’s audit and governance advisory committee chairman Keith Massey stated in a press release that further reform was required to build on the progress the trust had made and broaden its appeal to a wider range of potential future trustees.
Mr Massey said: “A wide range of people and organisations have been consulted, including Shetland Islands Council, NHS Shetland, Shetland Recreational Trust, Shetland Amenity Trust, Shetland Arts.
“I’m pleased that all trustees have been very engaged in the review process and have brought many different views and experiences to bear.
“A special workshop of trustees was convened to assess a wide range of suggestions.
“As a board of trustees we are committed to looking at ways to ensure we have fair representation of our Shetland community in the SCT. There are many ways this can be achieved and as a board we are still in the process of review.”
Mr Massey said there had been meetings between SIC chief executive Mark Boden and trust chief exectutive Ann Black.
But critics of the proposal, which will be tabled at an open trust meeting on 12th May, slammed the “farcical” workings of the organisation and said that it further weakened the democratic accountability of the trust and amounted to “creeping privatisation”.
Dr Wills circulated his own proposal to the board and The Shetland Times ahead of the announcement and has invited “the views of your readers” on the important issue of public policy.
He said: “Do they support the principle of an elected majority of trustees, or would they be content to see the public’s representatives reduced to four out of 15?
“There is a proposal to reduce the number of councillors further, to just four. This will not resolve the perceived ‘conflict of interest’ problem, nor the problem of the trust’s accounts still being ‘grouped’ by Audit Scotland, as if the trust were a subsidiary of the council.”
Referring to his own “discussion paper” Dr Wills added: “The solution appears to be for there no longer to be any councillors at all on the trust, given the difficulties so much publicised in recent years.
“However, given the intrinsic public character of the trust fund, due to its origins as public money and its purpose being the benefit of ‘the inhabitants of the Shetland Islands’, it seems reasonable to propose that the public should still have a say in who controls the trust.”
Instead, Dr Wills mooted a structure with eight trustees nominated by public election and seven appointed trustees.
Charitable trustee and South Mainland councillor Allison Duncan said he “backed Jonathan to the hilt” and his constituents “have made it quite clear” that trustees should be elected, not appointed.
Mr Duncan said he had initially wanted all the trustees to be elected but was prepared to compromise on that point.
He slammed the trust’s workings as a “farce” and said that the “rules” that prevented amendments being tabled to proposals put before the trust were stifling all debate and fostered the perception of business being done behind closed doors.
Mr Duncan said full charitable trust meetings were “over in a few minutes” and that if the organisation “wanted a good image with the people of Shetland” it had to make “the relevant changes”.
Mr Duncan said: “Election is the way forward because it is the Shetland people’s money and representatives will be listening to what people are wanting.
“If people think that they are good enough o be selected, why cannot they stand on their own two feet and be elected?
“To me it’s a farce that we cannot debate the situation in the comfort of a full trustees meeting.
“I feel very strongly about this. This cannot go on the way it’s going. To me it is a joke.”
SIC political leader Gary Robinson said that while the council’s only, long-standing view was that all trustees should be directly represented, he was personally disappointed that the council had not been approached and perplexed at the trust’s statement otherwise.
Mr Robinson said: “That’s the crazy thing about it; that they content the council has been consulted. No-one has spoken to me.
“The disappointing thing is that from the council’s side we have done our level best to work in partnership with the charitable trust.”
He said the council had long held that the beneficiaries of the trust were supposed to be the people of Shetland and not the organisations that the trust was funding.
“The people of Shetland would need to be spoken to at this stage and this just has not happened.”
Mr Robinson said the earliest the council could debate the trust’s proposal was 25th May – almost a fortnight after the charitable trust may decide to adopt the proposal.
Councilor trustee Drew Ratter said that he had been fully involved in the debate about the new system of governance and was “quite content” with the outcome, though the trust’s organisation would continue to evolve.
Mr Ratter said that his long involvement with the trust had led him to the understanding it was not the democratic organisation frequently imagined by the public, but it did have to abide by the Trustee Investments Act of 2003.
That constrained what structure would be acceptable to OSCR. He saw public involvement in the trust could be ensured by setting-up consultative forums, perhaps in partnership with industry, to “test drive” ideas for investment.
Mr Ratter said that setting up paid positions for senior trustees would help enlist poorer people who could not at present afford to be on the trust, and increase the representation of young women and others who might struggle to find the time.
“It may be an imperfect answer, inevitably, but it’s as good an answer as we may be going to get,” Mr Ratter added.
• See full story in The Shetland Times on Friday.