Opposition councillors in Aberdeenshire have branded the announcement of a change of leadership at the local authority an “unwelcome distraction”.
It was announced on Monday that council leader Jim Gifford would no longer be part of the Conservative group on the council, instead joining the aligned independent group.
He was joined by two other Conservative councillors, Jeff Hutchison and Lesley Berry.
The council also announced it was putting a succession plan in place, with new Conservative group chief Andy Kille shadowing Mr Gifford for the next five months before taking over as council leader in November.
However, opposition leader and SNP councillor Gwyneth Petrie criticised the move, accusing the Tories of “deposing” their leader.
And she accused them of putting the “leadership and stability” of the council in jeopardy.
She said: “I welcome Councillor Kille to his new role, however this is an unwanted distraction at a time when the council has been working well on a cross-party basis, with councillors of all parties stepping-up to support their communities.
“While it’s obviously a matter for the Conservatives who they want or don’t want to lead them, trying to depose the Leader of the Council in the middle of a pandemic when council officials are working flat out is not where the focus of the Conservative Group should be.
“Leadership and stability are vital for Aberdeenshire just now, and I hope that any internal disputes within the administration group don’t detract from this.
“On a personal level, I wish Jim Gifford well going forward. I have always found him to be courteous and with a willingness to listen.”
Mr Gifford had been leader of the Conservative group for around nine years prior to the announcement of his stepping aside.
In a statement, he said: “It has been a privilege and an honour to have led the Aberdeenshire Conservative group for almost nine years and I wish Andy all the very best as he takes on that role.
“The many people who know me will know that I honestly believe that party politics too often gets in the way of getting things done, especially at a local level.
“Aberdeenshire has an enviable reputation for being a non-political council and long may that continue.
“At this stage in my life and political career, I think that I can best serve the people of Aberdeenshire, and especially the residents of Mid Formartine Ward who elected me, by working as an Independent councillor and stepping back from political affiliation within the council.”
Mr Kille said: “I thank Councillor Petrie for her welcome and I note her remarks on leadership change. Clearly the SNP group have also just changed their leader and I hope that the two new leaders can continue to work on a cross party basis where possible for the good of the council and community.
“The council leader change is not effective until November and is to be done in a smooth, planned and as such, non-distracting way.
“This will provide new leadership for the council and a fresh perspective as we face entirely new challenges resulting from Covid-19 and the lockdown. As we emerge from this we will need to rebalance the budget, rebuild the local economy, support our communities and health partnership along with a wide variety of other issues and I look forward to all colleagues working as closely as possible to do so.”