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Furious councillor says Highland Council is like 'the Kremlin' after a tense question time led to allegations that leader Councillor Margaret Davidson was not responding openly, claims she denies

By Scott Maclennan

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Highland Council headquarters.
Highland Council headquarters.

Highland Council likened to the Kremlin due to a furious stand-off after a number of councillors felt their questions to the leader of the local authority went unanswered last week.

Each full council meeting offers members a chance to ask questions to high-ranking administration members – something largely seen as an opportunity to raise issues and sometimes score political points.

The number of questions has steadily grown and last week there were 43 – with each member permitted a follow-up – amid claims that elected members are not provided with enough information.

Convener Bill Lobban warned that supplementary questions would come immediately or he would move on – a tack that ultimately angered at least five members who were deeply unsatisfied with that process.

Tempers frayed when council leader Margaret Davidson appeared to rebuff questions about bullying, whistle-blowing, the cost of the Gathering Place artwork in Inverness and some councillors appearing before the Standards Commission.

Cllr Struan Mackie asked “given the council's attempts to stifle scrutiny” by senior officers referring him and Cllr Jarvie to the Standards Commissioner based on “unfounded” allegations if the leader was confident that this would not happen again.

She responded: “Cllr Mackie, I don't share your views and I don't enjoy your use of words which I do not believe are appropriate in this case. Thank you.”

The issue appeared again in a written question from Cllr Ron MacWilliam: “What sanctions have been imposed on senior management involved in utilising Highland Council resources in the submission of vexatious complaints about Member conduct to the Standards Commission for Scotland?"

Cllr Davidson responded: “I do not recognise the term vexatious.”

For his supplementary question, Cllr MacWillaim said: “I would thank the leader for an answer had she actually provided one. Highland council staff, no matter how senior, have standards of their own to adhere to. So to whom should a complaint be made if staff are believed, as appears to be the case, to be inappropriately involved in political matters?”

She said: “That is your view, Cllr MacWilliam, it is not mine on this.”

That triggered a bitter exchange when Cllr Glynis Campbell-Sinclair interjected and convener Bill Lobban tried to regain control, only for Cllr Campbell-Sinclair to say: “Well, this is like sitting in the Kremlin.”

After the meeting, Cllr MacWilliam said: “These were questions on serious issues of public concern yet the council leaders raced their way to the end with evasive and even one-word answers.

“These were questions on serious issues of public concern yet the council leaders raced their way to the end with evasive and even one word answers.

“Even the council leader has admitted that she had been ‘made aware’ of council staff using taxpayers’ resources to compile baseless complaints against her own political opponents.

“No large organisation can be so sick at the top yet be in otherwise good shape. This should matter to us all because the organisation not only delivers vital public services, it’s also a key driver of economic prosperity in the region and we need our representatives to focus sharply on the economic and social challenges in front of us."

Later, Cllr Davidson defended her performance, saying: “There was an unprecedented number of questions – the average number of questions is usually 10 or less.

"The answer to the conservative group’s questions on the standard’s commission were there and clear.

"It is also important to state that it is essential that members of the public, staff and fellow elected members must have the right to make their concerns about members heard and considered fully – that route is via the Standards Commission.

“Many of the answers sought were to questions that have been asked before and seemed to be more about looking for headlines than for genuinely seeking information or answers.

“Finally, if you look at the sum total of the questions last Thursday, those that genuinely sought information got full answers.”

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