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Row over chairmanship of electoral registration committee

Inverness councillor Ken Gowans
Picture by Sandy McCook.
Inverness councillor Ken Gowans Picture by Sandy McCook.

A political row has erupted over the chairmanship of an influential joint council committee.

The Highland and Western Isles Valuation Joint Board (VJB) is responsible for the administrative oversight of the Assessor and Electoral Registration Officer’s activities, in particular setting the annual budget.

It amalgamates councillors from both Highland Council and Western Islands Council.

Following the last local government elections in 2017 the committee voted for a new chairman, which was a 5-5 split between Highland members Jimmy Gray, for Labour, and the SNP’s Ken Gowans.

It was decided the pair would share the role, which pays around £4,300-a-year on top of councillor’s annual salary, with Mr Gray taking on the task for the first two years and Mr Gowans for the remainder.

However, the situation was made complicated when Mr Gowans left the SNP Group on Highland Council and was therefore unable to take up his role as a member of the VJB.

His position was taken by SNP Councillor Pauline Munro.

When Mr Gowans rejoined the SNP in 2019 Mrs Munro tendered her resignation from the committee to allow Mr Gowans to rejoin, which he subsequently did – with his intention to then take over the chairmanship.

However, a debate and vote on the chairmanship took place on the same day of her resignation – not allowing Mr Gowans the opportunity to take over the role as he had not yet rejoined.

The issue has been taken on by Western Isles SNP councillor Gordon Murray, who has written to the chief executive of the Comhairle nan Eilean.

He said: “I have concerns over the governance of the joint valuation board. A previously agreed decision seems to have been overturned and this has caused a real problem between members.

“This committee is an excellent example of partnership working and it would be a shame if this cannot be corrected and the original decision respected on joint chairmanship of the board.”

Councillor Gowans said: “I am deeply disappointed and saddened that this arrangement has not been honoured by the convenor. It is now a matter for the moral conscience for all those who supported this move.

“Those involved should take a long hard look at themselves and I am sure the public can draw their own conclusions.

“It is not unusual for councillors to enter agreements which involve large elements of trust, as anyone might imagine, this experience has demonstrated that there can no longer be any guarantee such arrangement can be relied upon to be honoured going forward.

“It is still not too late for the convenor to consider his position and it is my sincere hope, that after a period of further reflection, the terms and spirit of the 2017 agreement.”

Mr Gray responded: “There was a decision made at the start of this council’s life at the AGM of the VJB that Ken Gowans and I would split the post of convener over the life of the council.

“This decision was impacted by the fact that Ken Gowans left the SNP group on Highland Council and was not their representative on the VJB for the first half of the life of the Council. Ken Gowans was not a member of the VJB and did not attend any meetings over this period.

“At the end of this period the VJB made a decision that in light of the change of circumstances I was asked to remain as convener, this decision was supported by both of the Western isles representatives.”

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