INTERNAL strife inside Argyll and Bute Council exploded into public view today as The National exposes the extent of bitter infighting between council members and between officials and councillors.

The National can reveal that Argyll’s chief executive Sally Loudon and three other senior officials have filed a complaint – said to run into dozens of pages – with the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life against Dunoon Councillor Michael Breslin.

No details of the complaint are available, but they are understood to concern Breslin’s long fight to have Castle Toward in Cowal given over for community use.

Also likely to be reported to the Commissioner are council leader Dick Walsh and depute leader Ellen Morton. Independent councillor Vivien Dance, the member for Helensburgh Central, alleges that Morton tried to intimidate her into voting against her conscience on the controversial failure of the council to sell Castle Toward to the community group.

The National has discovered it is the Castle Toward saga which is at the heart of the complaints and fallouts inside the council, with Dance the first former administration member to break the silence which has surrounded the issue.

Speaking to The National yesterday, Dance said: “Like many of my outspoken colleagues on Argyll and Bute Council, I have been targeted by the leader Dick Walsh and his depute Ellen Morton who, in my opinion, are out of control and will resort to any means to silence the intelligent and articulate few who dare to challenge their way of working.

“Untruthful press statements have been issued this week from both of them about me and I am now making a formal complaint to the monitoring officer in the first instance, and thereafter more than likely to the Standards Commission, about this latest example of leadership by attrition.”

One council source said: “What makes this really astonishing is that the complaints come from someone who until the end of last year was a senior member of the council administration. Vivien Dance is no fantasist – she must be angry indeed.”

Dance says that she was “taken aside” and threatened with the loss of her £7,000 per year post as Policy Lead after saying she would vote against the wishes of Walsh and Morton. The National has spoken to a councillor who saw the brief meeting take place but did not hear the conversation.

Dance said: “At the meeting of the Policy and Resources committee on December 18, 2014, during a short adjournment, I was taken on one side by the Depute Leader, Ellen Morton and told ‘you will need to vote with the leader on the Castle Toward item, or there will be problems for you’.

“I said, I don’t agree with the leader on this issue and as far as I was concerned our protocol in the administration allows me to vote with my conscience provided I have indicated that beforehand and I have told you many times I do not support what you are doing on Castle Toward.

“She told me, ‘as you are policy lead and because you are paid extra, the leader expects you always to vote with him and you will need to do that today’.

“I said ‘you are going to be disappointed there, I told you I have a free vote, I am a member of the administration but I’m an independent’. I said that no one could control my vote, they could only do that by winning the argument. I voted with the opposition on that item, the only member of the administration to do so.”

Dance resigned as Policy Lead shortly afterwards, and later left the administration as she became more and more appalled at its actions and especially the treatment of the community group trying to buy Castle Toward for public use. Dance attended the public meeting at Dunoon on Castle Toward and admits she was “fairly outspoken against my independent colleagues and the Liberal Democrats”.

She said: “On the Monday they convened an administration meeting and it was minuted that ‘Cllr Dance stated she is ashamed of my fellow independents and accused them of selling their souls’. I was told to attend the next meeting to explain myself. Towards the end of January, things were getting really heated. Some of the things that the administration were bringing in were hair-raising and I was getting seriously concerned about their appalling comments, decisions and how they were made.

“Castle Toward was the biggest example – the administration simply went to war with the community. There was no other description for it. By the end of January I had had enough, and I resigned from the administration.”

Dance was also upset at the treatment of Breslin, who has confirmed to The National that he is aware of the complaints by officials against him. He supports Dance in her assertions of intimidation and added: “I am not surprised by what she is saying – it is exactly their modus operandi.”

Last weekend Dance addressed a public meeting in Oban: “I stressed the need for the Scottish Government to protect councillors that I describe as whistleblowers, because the pressure we are under is tremendous.

“It’s aggressive, it’s intense, it’s intimidation and it’s bullying and you are left to deal with it on your own, as officers and councillors close ranks against you.

On Monday I received an e-mail telling me that I had been removed from every committee position. The only two non-aligned members who have not been appointed are myself and Michael Breslin. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but judge for yourself.”

Last night Morton denied Dance’s version of events at the December meeting and said she “certainly did not agree” with her former colleague’s assertions.

“I certainly did not tell her she was paid to vote with the leader,” said Cllr Morton. Walsh and chief executive Sally Loudon were unable to be contacted.

A spokeswoman from the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life confirmed they had received a complaint but said: “It is not our practice to comment further until the commissioner concludes any enquiries/investigation.”

A spokesperson from the council said: “The allegations made are disappointing. The council in fact did the opposite to what is claimed with regard the Castle Toward community buyout. The council did all it could to find a solution that would satisfy the aspirations of the South Cowal Community Development Company and the wider community. This council values highly our hard working employees. There are processes and support in place, including that of independent trade unions, to ensure that employees have opportunities to raise concerns and assistance in progressing them.

“Our focus is on working together wherever possible in the interests of Argyll and Bute.”

Michael Russell MSP: ‘An anti-democratic shambles that must end’

THE anti-democratic shambles that is Argyll & Bute Council has been going on for too long, is getting worse and is actively damaging one of the most beautiful and (potentially) most prosperous areas of Scotland.

But when I explain to my constituents – as I have to on a regular basis – that virtually nothing can be done about it given the present laws that govern Scotland’s local councils I am greeted with at best incredulity and at worst complete despair.

Maybe that will change, though. Last Saturday two young Oban women organised a highly successful event under the title The People’s Council which looked at how things might be different. Whilst it attracted interest from across the country it was particularly well attended by those in Argyll who had been radicalised first by the referendum and then by the cruel saga of Castle Toward.

But Castle Toward isn’t the only recent Argyll & Bute scandal. A boat owner has had a six-year long dispute over a berth in Rothesay Harbour; there is the matter of payment below the minimum wage for sub-contracted care workers; there is rock bottom staff morale (because there are many good staff in the council who hate what is being done in their name); a haemorrhage of educational talent; there are problems of bad financial management coming home to roost; there are procurement issues – the list could go on and on. New issues are added to it every time Brendan O’Hara, the Westminster MP, or I hold a surgery.

The response of the Council Leader, the chief executive and her management team is, however, nearly always the same. Nothing is wrong, any complaint is mistaken or malicious and nothing will, or can, be changed. If only we would stop raising such things, everything would be fine.

Anyone who dares to disturb that bubble of contentment pays the price. Recently the chief executive and her three senior directors drew up a 90-page complaint to the national watchdog about one councillor who dared criticise the council. Given that Argyll & Bute has the worst depopulation problem in the country, surely the half million pounds in combined salaries for that group of officers would be better applied to trying to help the area rather than attempting to silence democratic debate?

The present state of the council makes a stunningly eloquent case for the devolution of powers to a much more local level and it clearly illustrates that the current legislation for holding local authorities to account is not fit for purpose.

Many of us want to see a vigorous discussion of those issues in the run up to next year’s Holyrood election and legislation thereafter to achieve change. But most of all I want to see action to free my constituents from the awful situation they find themselves in, badly served by a failing council in which they have lost all trust.