Campaigner Helen Smith would win election by a landslide

by Colin Campbell

JUST when you thought elements within Highland Council couldn’t get more high-handed, arrogant and autocratic over their planned “Gathering Place” along comes the reason for Inverness Provost Helen Carmichael refusing to meet representatives of the OpenNess group leading protests against the scheme.

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OpenNess petition organiser Helen Smith, pictured right, would trounce most councillors in an election for office.

 She won’t meet them because they are “an unconstituted group”.

 For heaven’s sake petition organiser Helen Smith and a few others only came together to form OpenNess a few weeks ago. Since then that petition against the Gathering Place has attracted more than 2,000 signatures.

 But they’re only ordinary people showing the determination and initiative to do something that many others greatly approve of. They may be “unconstituted” – whatever that means – but whoever thought that you had to be to be granted an audience with the provost of Inverness.

 This a chat at the Town House we’re talking about – not the United Nations or the House of Lords.

 Having covered Inverness affairs for various papers for the past 40 and more years, I’m darn sure none of Helen Carmichael’s predecessors refused to talk to any ordinary citizens because they weren’t “properly constituted”.

Not that I’m putting her immediate predecessors, former provosts Alex Graham and Jimmy Gray on any kind of pedestal. When it comes to the hugely contentious Gathering Place issue they’ve been as silent as a pair of tailor’s dummies. And about as much use, as well.

 But former provosts Allan Sellar, Bill Smith or Ian Fraser wouldn’t – I’m certain – have dreamed of rebuffing concerned citizens with such a pathetic excuse. The provost’s role as First Citizen is to be open, generous and welcoming to the people he or she is there to serve and represent. Not to shut them out and dismiss them by hiding behind legalese, or for anyone to do so on her behalf.

 It smacks of the council yet again clinging to the rulebook over the Gathering Place because they’re desperately short of answers to the questions they’d be asked.

 Why are so many Inverness councillors – Ron MacWilliam, Andrew Jarvie, Bill Boyd, Ken Gowans, Emma Knox, Roddy Balfour, Janet Campbell and Glynis Sinclair, and one or two others I’ve probably overlooked – so vehemently critical of the way the Gathering Place issue has been handled? Why are they unanimous in saying they’ve had no chance to have virtually any input on the issue?

 Have they all clubbed together to tell a Great Big Lie?

 Or are they just dim-witted, lazy and stupid – which is the implication behind the latest council claims that they’ve had loads of chances to exert influence over the Gathering Place?

I know who I believe.

 Why have only four councillors, Helen Carmichael, Arts group chairman Isabelle Mackenzie, Graham Ross and Carolyn Caddick publicly expressed support for the Gathering Place?

 And why have all the others remained pitifully silent, offering no opinion whatsoever on an issue of such magnitude?

 I’ve had plenty to say on this. The Inverness Courier says it all “stinks to high heaven”. And anything said either here or there is outmatched by the level of anger and disgust expressed by many who’ve signed the protest petition.

 I warned a few days ago that Provost Carmichael’s imperious declaration that this £300,000 riverside-ruining travesty WILL go ahead regardless of what people think of it would only further inflame public anger.

 And that’s exactly what’s happened.

 Now we are told she won’t meet ordinary Inverness folk because they’re not “properly constituted”.

 It typifies the fact that the Gathering Place has been one dreadful blunder after another. In public relations terms that is. But the suspicion of many will now loom larger than ever that careful calculation was made behind the scenes to “grease it through” on the nod by officials rather than it being subjected to full and open council debate. And the vast majority of people will now be right behind those angry councillors who insist they were kept in the dark about the whole wretched business simply to avoid a re-run of the debacle over the tilting pier. Right down to the council submitting a planning application for it on the last working day before Christmas – after months on the back burner – at a time when it was guaranteed to receive the absolute minimum of public and media attention.

 The provost, the three other councillors who support the Gathering Place, and the shamefully “silent ones” didn’t show up at a packed public meeting on the issue. Maybe they considered that wasn’t “properly constituted”. They steered clear of an Easter Monday “picnic protest” at the riverside. Maybe the blankets, cakes and lemonade weren’t “properly constituted” either.

 Now there are serious proposals to launch a crowdfunding campaign for legal action against the council over the Gathering Place. Let’s hope there is full-on support to get this up and running. Count me in – and I suspect many others also. It might win, it might not, but I’d rather lose twenty quid on a matter of principle than stand by and watch the council squandering £300,000 on desecrating the riverside.

 Some of the current bunch of councillors are well past their sell-by date and probably won’t stand for office again. But people have very long memories and other councillors who have seen their reputations besmirched by the Gathering Place fiasco shouldn’t count on that being forgotten when the next election arrives.

 And on a final note I’ll say with 100 per cent confidence and certainty that if there was an election tomorrow and “unconstituted” Helen Smith threw her hat in the ring, she’d defeat Helen Carmichael, Isabelle Mackenzie and most of the rest of them by a landslide.

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