Councillors in clear over letter to newspaper

Hawick councillors Stuart Marshall and, right, Watson McAteer.
Hawick councillors Stuart Marshall and, right, Watson McAteer.

Two Hawick councillors have been cleared of acting unethically by writing a letter to the press taking issue with a report by a senior Scottish Borders Council officer.

Watson McAteer and Stuart Marshall, both independents representing the council’s Hawick and Denholm ward, welcomed that decision by Bill Thomson, commissioner for ethical standards in public life in Scotland.

“This has been hanging over us for six months, and I’m relieved we have been cleared of any wrongdoing,” said Mr Marshall, also honorary provost for Hawick.

Mr Thomson’s ruling was in response to a complaint submitted by the council on behalf of Bryan McGrath, its chief economic development officer, alleging that the pair had breached its elected members’ code of conduct.

That protocol demands that councillors “must respect all council employees and the role they play and treat them with courtesy at all times” and “should not raise matters relating to the conduct and capability of employees in public”.

The case relates to a written update on the progress of the Hawick action plan discussed at a full council meeting in June last year.

The paper, written by Mr McGrath, stated: “There is a risk that a self-fulfilling negativity is becoming entrenched in the community.”

On July 22, the Hawick News published a letter by the two councillors saying Mr McGrath’s report was “unwelcome and unwarranted” and alleged the officer had “taken it upon himself to issue a hollow and irrelevant warning to councillors of a self-fulfilling negativity becoming entrenched in Hawick”.

“Our call is for less words and more direct and meaningful action, with council officers doing their job by sticking to the facts and not engaging in political or emotional debate,” they concluded.

In his determination of the complaint, Mr Thomson states: “The letter included phrases which, in the opinion of the complainer, showed disrespect towards Mr McGrath and could have been regarded as criticism.

“However, the letter from the respondents was effectively in response to political comments made by officers who had approved the content of a report under the authorship of Mr McGrath.

“I was satisfied that the comments made by the respondents could be regarded as fair and, as such, did constitute unwarranted and specific criticism of Mr McGrath.”

Mr McAteer told us: “Stuart and I have been subjected to quite unnecessary uncertainty simply because we responded to something we believed had political implications and was potentially damaging to Hawick.

“It is reassuring that the commissioner has clarified the position regarding the right of councillors to appropriately challenge the local authority and express views on behalf of constituents.”

A council spokesperson said: “The council raised the alleged breach with the commissioner and notes his decision.”