Former council leader suspended after sharing confidential information

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A FORMER council leader who shared confidential information on Facebook has been suspended for three months by the Standards Commission.

John Ross Scott, who now represents Orkney Island Council, breached the code of conduct after sharing private information about his local authority declaring a coronavirus “major emergency” and also publicised the death of a colleague before their family had been fully notified.

Mr Scott, the former leader of Borders Council, breached four parts of the code of conduct following a hearing by Standards Commission Scotland.

He has now been suspended from attending meetings of the full council for the next three months.

Ashleigh Dunn, chair of the Hearing Panel, said: “the requirement for councillors to refrain from disclosing confidential information is a key requirement of the councillors’ code of conduct. The panel noted that a failure to do can damage the reputation and integrity of a council and can also impede discussions and decision-making.

“The panel agreed that, in this case, it was legitimate for the council to have decided that the information be kept confidential until such a time as the proposals discussed had been finalised and officers had sufficient time to prepare and manage external communications.

 Former council leader publicised death before family told

“This would ensure the council’s position and response were communicated clearly and fully.”

As well as publishing confidential information about the pandemic, 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, 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”.

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.

He was asked to provide evidence in mitigation before the panel decided to suspend him.

Mr Scott told the panel that he had raised concerns that “the council was not providing sufficient and timely information to the public about its response to the pandemic”.

In relation to publicising his colleague’s death, Mr Scott “maintained that it had not been clear to him that the information was private or to be kept confidential, although he accepted that the timing of his post had been a mistake”.

In his mitigating evidence, Mr Scott told the panel that he “was experiencing personal difficulties and was struggling with an increased workload at the time, which included dealing with complaints and concerns from constituents who considered they were not being provided with adequate information about the council’s response to the pandemic”.

He added that he “had simply been seeking to be open and transparent with the public by keeping them informed about developments”.

Mr Scott argued that “the majority of the information disclosed was already in the public domain and that no actual harm had resulted from his postings, which were factual in nature”.

But he accepted that “he may have ‘inadvertently handicapped the efforts of staff to respond to the rapidly developing situation’”.

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