If It’s About Money, You’re in the Wrong Job

For six years as community councillor and thirteen as a local authority councillor, most of which I served on a SEPA board, I have earned a grand total of around £149,000. Put another way, that works out at £3.50 per hour—or about half the minimum wage. Now I expect neither plaudits nor OBEs for that; I chose to do this and no-one is forcing me to continue. I do this because I have a sweet spot for my home town and I believe no-one else can as good a job of representing the people who live there and their needs.

This weekend, a sleeping dog was snoring happily away when it was awakened by a Hootsmon reporter drawing my attention to a recent advert in the London Gazette that said:

“The Queen has directed that the appointment of John Lindsay to be an officer of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, dated 31 December 2005, shall be cancelled and annulled and that his name shall be erased from the register of the said Order.”

It was a conclusion to a matter and—in my opinion—the only fitting one, given that he had already been criticised by the Standards Commission, stripped of his membership of CiPFA (the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and fined £7,000 to boot. It is the final dishonourable step in what should have been an honourable career.

Everyone who comes to public service does so for their own reasons and I am not about to lecture anyone on what they should be. But one thing I am certain: those reasons should not be about money. If it’s about money in public service, then you’re in the wrong job. After a career in local authority finance, by 2007, John Lindsay had been Chief Executive of East Lothian Council for a decade and was heading for retirement and an annual pension of around £50,000. Despite being a tidy sum, this was nonetheless fairly earned by rules that no-one has questioned either before or since.

For reasons that still escape me (other than greed), he could not settle for that. First of all, he dreamed up a financial wheeze whereby what had been a separate car allowance for senior officials was to be considered as salary and, since final salary pensions were standard, would have a positive effect on any senior staff’s retirement pension package. No-one pointed out it was specifically forbidden to treat car allowances in this way.

My history with John was one of cagey hostility. When first elected in 1999, the office he assigned me was a room next to the Sheriff Court cells and five minutes walk from any administrative support. When I took complaints of ritual bullying by the Administration in the Chamber to him, he listened in stony silence, claimed he could do nothing about it and we went our separate ways.

Though I made a point of meeting with him annually, it was with diminishing hope that I would be treated as other than a nuisance, an aberration of the council’s 25-year history of a Labour Administration, heavily dependent on its Chief Executive for policy and budget initiatives whose execution was barely disturbed by a pliant Conservative opposition.

Then came the ELC Special Meeting to set the 2007-8 budget on February 8th. As was usual, papers were made available only 1 hour prior to the meeting. First among them was a tabled paper of which I had been given no notice that re-organised senior management such that the Chief Executive post would be made redundant and the putative savings therefrom wrapped into a lump sum of £149,000 to be gifted to John upon his retirement.

The paper was nodded through with Conservative support; the Labour budget passed. Once it was all over, I walked out of the room knowing something was wrong. I shared my misgivings with several officials who basically shrugged. I then went to Council Solicitor Keith MacConnachie as Monitoring Officer (the Council’s internal conscience) who maintained the legitimacy of the paper and that making the Chief Executive’s job redundant did not, as I claimed, break the law—quite apart from flying in the face of logic.

Failing to find any support for my position within the Council and convinced that this was much more than an Administration again riding roughshod over a weak opposition, I felt I had no choice but write to the Ethical Standards in Public Life, which I did. No sooner had I done so than The Provost Pat O’Brien, Leader Norman Murray and Leader of the Opposition Gilbert Meikle all reported me to the same authority, claiming I had harassed the manager of the committee clerks service.

Before much else could happen, the May 2007 elections produced an earthquake in Scottish local government. Instead of 17 Labour to one each SNP and Lib-Dem councillors, 7 Labour faced 7 SNP and 6 Lib-Dems, the latter quickly agreeing a coalition that was to administer East Lothian for the next five years.

Upon hearing of the coalition, John reversed his decision to retire in September of that year but was promptly put on “gardening leave” and escorted out of the building. The next 18 months saw a great deal of legal wrangling as to whether he was or was not entitled to keep either his job or his £149,000 ‘bonus’, during which time the Accounts Commission reported that not just ELC’s behaviour around this retirement but indeed much of its management practice at senior level before then did not match its standards.

In all that time, I served as Leader but, because much of this was sub judice I was unable to brief my own Cabinet colleagues, let alone the bulk of staff who were understandably unnerved by this wrangle going on at senior level. Before John’s case itself collapsed after two years, CiPFA’s own investigation found John’s behaviour seriously wanting and so below the standards expected he was expelled as a member and fined £7,000. All three Ethical Standards in Public Life cases against me were dismissed with no case to answer.

It is unfortunate that it took the Crown a further three years to strip John of his OBE but the logic seems inevitable to me. How fellow councillors can consider this “a step too far” puzzles me. John was already stretching rules before he made this foolish bid for money to which he was not entitled. I found him to be a poor Chief Executive, relying on fiscal threats to keep departments in line, over-cosy with the Administration and poor at people motivation.

That as senior and experienced a councillor as present Leader Willie Innes can say “Everyone makes mistakes…but on balance I would have thought it a bit unfair for the honour to have been stripped” makes me question moral compasses of some  colleagues.

This was no mistake from John; it was coldly, deliberately, selfishly planned.

This was a strong-willed individual browbeating his staff on more than one occasion into self-serving policy interpretations that were demonstrably wrong and then swearing black was white in his own defence, rejecting respected organisation after respected organisation as they condemned his schemes in the strongest possible terms.

With the OBE matter now out of the way, this whole issue can be put to bed and John can sit in his big house down in Archerfield and enjoy an already well funded retirement. I’m glad the whole distasteful mess is now over and console myself that, if I had never done a single other thing for residents of East Lothian (and I like to think I’ve done many) then by torpedoing John’s dash for the door with £149,000 of public cash, just by itself has covered my entire public income over my two decades of public service to date.

But I hope any future contribution I make in the public interest will be less distasteful and more uplifting for all. Can’t guarantee it will face its face, though.


About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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