Former council leader publicised death before family told

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A FORMER council leader has been found guilty of breaching the code of conduct after sharing confidential information about an authority declaring a coronavirus ‘major emergency’ and publicising the death of a colleague before their family had been notified.

John Ross Scott, the former leader of Borders Council, now a member of Orkney Island Council, breached four parts of the code of conduct, a hearing by Standards Commission Scotland has found.

As well as publishing confidential information, Mr Scott was also found to have breached the code by making public the death of another councillor, Kevin Woodbridge, despite relatives having “not yet advised not all close family members of the news”.

Mr Scott has been asked to submit written mitigation before a panel decides whether he is to face suspension or any other punishment.

Mr Scott, who was a councillor in the Borders for 23 years including serving as leader between February 2002 and May 2003, was also the Scottish Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson in the run-up to the 1999 Holyrood election.

He joined the SNP in 2014, was the chairman of NHS Orkney from 2007 to 2015 and elected to Orkney Council in 2017, representing Kirkwall East.

On March 16, 2020, Mr Scott attended a private briefing for councillors by the authority’s senior management team to discuss the council’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But later that day, Mr Scott “published a post on his Facebook page containing information about the council’s response to the pandemic and the briefing”, the panel found.

Mr Scott also took part in another councillors’ briefing about the pandemic response on March 23 before later that day publishing a post “outlining the recommendations that had been approved at the meeting”.

On March 24, Mr Scott was emailed by Orkney Council’s interim chief executive, highlighting confidentiality requirements and told he was “to refrain from attending member briefings, with immediate effect, until further notice”.

The following day, Mr Scott replied, stating he “had removed references to the council’s declaration of a major emergency and possibility of a reduction in bin collections and recycling”. He was then told on April 15, 2020, he could resume attending the confidential briefings, as long as he “behaved”.

But five days later, Mr Scott attended a briefing session where news of the death of another councillor the previous day was discussed.

Ler that day, Mr Scott “published a post on his Facebook page in which he stated he was ‘saddened to learn of the death’” of Mr Woodbridge. Mr Scott was contacted separately, by the son and daughter of Mr Woodbridge, separately who asked him to “retract his post as they had not yet advised not all close family members of the news” and the Facebook post was deleted. The Standards Commission panel acknowledged that while Mr Scott “may have been trying to be open and transparent”, it was clear that “the briefings were private and that discussions and information provided at them was not to be disclosed”.

It added: “The panel agreed that it was evident that there were legitimate reasons for keeping the information confidential at that time, which included ensuring that officers had sufficient time to prepare and manage communications to ensure that the council’s position and response were represented fully, and that messages were drafted in a way that provided some reassurance and did not cause undue fear or alarm.”

In relation to the Facebook post publicising the death of Mr Woodbridge, the panel “was satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that it had been made clear to all elected members” who took part in the meeting that the information “was private and was not to be shared until confirmation had been received that all close family members were aware of the news”. The panel added that “it should have been apparent from the discussion that the information was not to be disclosed for the time-being”.

The Standards Commission concluded that in sharing the news of the councillor’s death, Mr Scott “failed to show due regard” for the relatives “feelings or wishes” and “failed to demonstrate courtesy and respect towards the other councillor’s family”.

Mr Scott breached paragraphs 3.16, 3.17, 3.1 and 3.2.

Writing on his Facebook page, Mr Scott said that “openness and accountability is a precious commodity in this day and age” adding it is “particularly pertinent at a time of crisis”.

He added: “I will continue to fight for transparency in all walks of public life. The public has the right to be told as much as they can be told without breaking business and personal confidentiality.

“But while some may think this will change the way I do things, I am more than determined than ever that it will not.”

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