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Broken IT system leaves veteran Aberdeenshire councillors exchanging emotional goodbyes virtually at final meeting

Aberdeenshire Council's broken IT system blighted the final meeting of many veteran members.  Supplied by Chris Donnan
Aberdeenshire Council's broken IT system blighted the final meeting of many veteran members. Supplied by Chris Donnan

Veteran Aberdeenshire councillors have been denied the chance to exchange fond farewells in person.

An IT bungle meant nearly every member had to take part in their final meeting virtually, after decades of gathering under the same roof to discuss and debate the region’s welfare.

The likes of Provost Bill Howatson, drawing 23 years on the local authority to a close, and Ian Mollison, waving goodbye after 15 years, had been looking forward to one final hurrah in the Woodhill House chambers.

A disappointed Mr Mollison revealed that plans to gather in person had to be abandoned when it became clear “the technology wouldn’t work”.

Under the “hybrid” meeting plans, some members would have contributed from afar while others were in the building.

Mr Howatson was left staring at a digital wall of colleagues as he presided over his final meeting

‘Swansong’ meeting tarnished by tech woes

In the end, 60 of the 70 councillors spent their last meeting gazing at a computer screen on Thursday.

Within days, a new crop of councillors will be elected and new administration formed.

Taking to Facebook afterwards, Mr Mollison revealed his “swansong” didn’t quite go to plan.

He said: “Well, that’s that. My final meeting as an Aberdeenshire councillor after 15 years.

“The swansong was a four-hour meeting of the full council, with 60 of the 70 councillors attending virtually.

“Plans to meet in the chamber at Woodhill House had to be abandoned because, simply, the technology would not work.”

Well, that's that. My final meeting as an Aberdeenshire councillor after 15 years. The swansong was a four-hour…

Posted by Ian Mollison on Thursday, 28 April 2022

Gillian Owen confirmed she was “sadly” not back in the HQ for the gathering.

She took to Twitter instead to say farewell to her departing colleagues, “wishing each and every one of them well in their future endeavours”.

Hybrid working becoming more common

So-called “hybrid” practices are being adopted at workplaces across the UK since the pandemic caused a massive shift in office culture.

At the same meeting, councillors discussed ongoing plans for meetings to be held with some members chipping in from home while watching debate in the chamber unfold.

They were told the council’s current audio equipment is now “defunct” and “unfixable”, hence the problems that blighted the occasion.

Aberdeenshire Council’s Woodhill House HQ. 

But members heard money is available to upgrade the system.

Councillors agreed to go ahead with the upgrade plan, and the director of business services will now write up a report with detailed costs for the works.

Questions arose over IT system before

Martin Ford previously questioned the cost of IT improvements. 

Martin Ford, who is stepping down after 23 years on the council, last year expressed reservations about shifting to hybrid meetings when coronavirus levels were still high.

He suggested, at that time, spending £100,000 on the Woodhill House improvements would have been a waste of money.

It came as the authority plotted the return of in-person meetings following 18 months of business being carried out virtually.

A pilot scheme was eventually rolled out this January.

Bill Howatson closes 23-year chapter

Marking the end of an era, Mr Howatson said: “It has been a great honour and privilege for me to serve Aberdeenshire over the past 23 years.

“Some of us have taken the decision not to stand for election again and that’s myself included.

“I’d like to send very best wishes and thanks for your dedication and commitment to serving our communities across Aberdeenshire.”

You can watch the meeting here:

 

He added: “The role of a councillor requires a great personal commitment and this last council term has seen challenges to overcome like never before with a global pandemic and hugely destructive storms.

“Whatever side of the political spectrum we come from we are all here with a shared purpose and that is to serve Aberdeenshire.

“Much of our business has been delivered with consensus and where there has been difference we have conducted business professionally and with a great respect for each other’s views.”

Touching homage to Fergus Hood

Tributes were paid to those not standing again, to past councillors who left during the term and “greatly missed colleague” Fergus Hood who died last March.

Peter Argyle said: “He’s not forgotten and never will be, he was a lovely man.”

Fergus Hood securing election in 2017. 

Andy Kille spoke at the meeting to give his last statement as leader of Aberdeenshire Council.

He thanked Provost Howatson for keeping councillors “in check” and for being able to “lighten the mood” with his dry wit.

Councillor Kille said that it had been a “huge personal honour” to be the council leader.

He confessed he decided to stand down with a “lump in my throat and a tear in my eye”.

You can see the full list of candidates standing for election on Thursday, May 5, here.

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