Shetland Charitable Trust is to press ahead with a reorganisation that will see the number of councillor trustees reduced to four and “threatens the end of any democratic participation in the trust”.
The decision, taken at a stormy trust meeting yesterday, was in spite of warnings that the meeting was the last chance to preserve any democratic control over the trust’s £224 million investments.
With four trustees absent from what was dubbed “possibly the most important meeting” the organisation ever had, trustees voted eight to two to put their plan to Shetland Islands Council, whose appointment of four councillor-trustees will be sought.
But vice-chairman Jonathan Wills said the decision was unworkable as it would not get the backing of the SIC and that adopting the “turkey” of a proposal threatened to bring the trust into disrepute. The entire trust, if there is no council participation, could end up consisting of appointees.
Dr Wills said: “In moving the amendment I was trying to save the trust from the very serious and public embarrassment of passing a resolution which, as it stands, cannot possibly be implemented in full and would certainly have to be changed before being accepted by OSCR – even if trustees did choose to ignore public opinion.”
But backers of the move argued strongly against “politicisation” of the trust which they saw as the inevitable outcome of putting its board of trustees up for election.
In a bizarre turn of events, trustees effectively ended up debating an amendment that Dr Wills was barred from formally tabling.
Dr Wills was critical of the trust for its secretive dealings on an issue that had no need for confidentiality, and said his attempts to campaign for a democratically elected majority on the council had been “blocked at every turn”.
Although the trust’s governance committee chairman Keith Massey said the change was part of an ongoing governance review, Dr Wills said the chances of the trust ever going back to a more democratic form would be like “turkeys voting for Christmas”.
A furious Allison Duncan also called for the resignation of chairman Bobby Hunter because of his attempts to muzzle the “naughty boys” – Duncan and Wills – prior to the meeting.
Mr Duncan threatened to go public with the contents of a “disgraceful” letter threatening to remove the pair, who “went public” on the issue and said the way the trust operated amounted to a “dictatorship”.
He told the meeting: “If he thinks he’s going to shut me up, he has another think coming. I’m my own man … you will not shut me up. This trust should be an elected process, not a selected cabal.”
Mr Duncan then moved on to the trust’s attempt to funnel all its communication through the chairman “because they are frightened” of what he might say.
“That’s nothing short of a dictatorship as far as I am concerned,” Mr Duncan added. “The people of Shetland are not damned fools. They will tell us at the ballot box whether they want us or not.”
Dr Wills was also annoyed that Mr Hunter had suggested he set aside his own personal interests for that of the trust.
“I have no personal interest here whatsoever. By advocating that there no longer be any councillor trustees, I am actually trying to talk myself and my councillor colleagues out of a job, albeit an unpaid one,” he added.
Following the meeting Mr Hunter said he would not be stepping down and Mr Duncan’s “dictatorship” claim was without explanation. “That was a spat between me and Allison”.
He said: “I think the trust took the right direction today. I took no part in the debate as I was chairman, but I voted for it as the right thing to do.
“Trusts have to do the right thing in terms of the governing organisation OSCR and I genuinely believe that’s what we have done.”
During the debate Dr Wills emphasised he had no problem with the selected trustees, who had made a “valuable contribution”.
He said: “My concern is with the longer-term future of the trust if there is to be little or no democratic link to the inhabitants of the Shetland Islands; and what might happen if we end up with an organisation which becomes self-selecting in perpetuity; where the public’s involvement decays into mere consultation which, as we know, can often become a charade, better described as notification.”
Dr Wills, in imperious form, took trustees to task for their “caricature” of his amendment and the personal nature of the “attack” by Drew Ratter who had also offered a “character assassination” of Peter Hamilton. At one point he tossed pages of his text at Mr Ratter and trustee Jimmy Smith, challenging them to read his proposal.
He also chided Mr Ratter to stop playing with his iPhone and iPad at a public meeting.
Dr Wills also criticised the trust for failing to consult the SIC on its proposal before getting to decision stage as “incompetent”.
Appointed trustee Peter Malcolmson, a former councillor, said it was important to realise that what was proposed was part of a process and there would be another review in three years.
He said that the trust had been right to conduct its business in private but the time had now come for the proposal to be aired publicly.
Mr Malcolmson added: “Shetland Charitable Trust is not a public body. This is a point in law and in the law we are not accountable to the SIC or to the public in general. We are accountable to the office of the Scottish charity regulator.”
Mr Ratter said that the proposal would have to clear the demands of OSCR and the public would be able to make their views known to OSCR.
The charitable trust, he said, was governed by fairly mechanical rules and laws and that had worked well since it became an independent trust.
Nor was Mr Ratter keen on people campaigning for election to the trust as it had serious responsibilities and could not just overturn its work of previous years.
Councillor trustee Amanda Westlake said that she was “very impressed” with the proposal and that since joining the trust she had “witnessed nothing other than the honest willingness from every trustee to do their best for the people of Shetland”.
Ms Westlake also said Dr Wills was wrong to make the assumption that every councillor would reject a position on the trust out of hand.
Following the debate Mr Hamilton, the acting convener of pressure group Democracy For Shetland’s Charitable Trust, attempted to step into the fray, but was unanimously shouted down by trustees.
Mr Hamilton had called for direct civil action prior to the meeting, but seemed to have brought no followers with him.
Despite the impassioned and articulate arguments of the opponents, the trust voted in favour of the report by eight to two.
Backing the governance committee report were Mr Massey, Mr Smith, Robert Henderson, Ms Westlake, Mr Ratter, Mr Malcolmson, Tom MacIntyre and Mr Hunter.
Dr Wills’ amendment was for eight trustees to be publicly elected, with the trust to have a veto over these candidates, with the other seven selected. Mr Duncan said this plan for a wholly elected trust was what “the Shetland public want”.
Trustees Ian Napier, Malcolm Bell, Andrew Cooper and Andrea Manson were not in attendance at the meeting.