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Highland councillors claim complaints made against them by officers stem from a wish to stifle scrutiny and they have not even been told what they are alleged to have done wrong

By Scott Maclennan

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Councillor and Conservative group leader Andrew Jarvie.
Councillor and Conservative group leader Andrew Jarvie.

Two leading opposition councillors have claimed efforts are under way to muzzle them after they asked critical questions about the direction of Highland Council.

Conservative group leader, Inverness South Councillor Andrew Jarvie, and his deputy Struan Mackie, who represents Thurso and north-west Caithness, have been referred to the standards commission.

The pair say they were cited for allegedly breaching the code of conduct by unidentified officers, but the council refuses to tell them what they are accused of having done wrong.

Cllr Jarvie said he had to resort to data protection laws to get a copy of the complaint.

Both councillors believe the action stems from questioning chief executive Donna Manson’s performance, and an article that appeared in the satirical magazine Private Eye, attacking the council on a number of fronts.

Cllr Jarvie felt that the referral to the standards commission was part of an effort to stifle proper scrutiny of council activities, despite that being one of the key roles of any elected member.

“This referral to the standards commission by an officer of the council is a highly unusual practice,” he said.

“However, it is the culmination of months of active efforts to suppress genuine scrutiny.

“I have been interrogated by three officers questioning my conduct, with no opportunity afforded to me to seek legal advice or hear what the apparent accusation is.

“Why is it the only two councillors who appear to have been reported to the Standards Commission by officers of this council are two who have dared to legitimately question the chief executive?”

The Private Eye article appeared in October, and was swiftly followed by a public statement of support by council leader and deputy leader Margaret Davidson and Alasdair Christie for council management, including Mrs Manson.

Cllr Struan Mackie.
Cllr Struan Mackie.

Cllr Mackie said he queried how such a statement could be sent as a collective show of support when “that was demonstrably false”.

He said: “My disappointment is that there has obviously been a public statement that was made on behalf of the council leadership as a result of the Private Eye article,” he said.

“My email was simply a question to the leader that a statement of support for the chief executive could go out collectively as the view of council when that was demonstrably false.

“We have seen it at committee and at full council that there is not unequivocal support and I was merely asking why the leader would go on and make that statement in public.

“But I think the more disappointing element of this is that robust scrutiny, which is why we are elected to represent our communities, is now considered something that needs to be challenged.

“I can’t believe that we are in a position where we have to justify doing the very thing that we were elected to do and now there has been a referral to the standards commission for that.

“So far I have very little detail on why this has been done, no particular thing has been cited but certainly it distracts me from doing my job and it is certainly distracting time away from officers delivering services for people and not chasing councillors for doing their jobs and providing robust scrutiny."

Asked to respond to the councillors’ arguments a spokesperson for Highland Council simply said: “It would be inappropriate to comment.”

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