ON the surface, it was the most trivial of questions for such a highly-charged occasion – accused councillor Lewis Ritchie requesting congratulations to ultramarathon competitors.
Making his first appearance since denying detailed sexual harassment claims against him by former SNP colleagues, Cllr Ritchie praised runners in the 54-mile G2E later this month.
But perhaps it was a fitting first contribution for a man vowing to be in it for the long haul in attending yesterday’s full council at city chambers.
What started, officially anyway, as sick leave for the former city planning chief in November, exploded into allegations of impropriety last month amid claim and counterclaim.
First a former SNP colleague claimed married Cllr Ritchie, dressed only in his boxers, tried to clamber into her bed after a boozy night out at last October’s party conference.
Then a party activist came forward to allege he tried to kiss her while sharing a lift in the back of a taxi from a party fundraiser the previous April.
When added to claims the keen boxer punched a male colleague while in the back of another taxi, also at October’s conference, a picture of a man out of control was emerging.
Suspended by the SNP Group, Cllr Ritchie immediately quit but vowed to continue as an independent – so averting party disciplinary proceedings.
Speaking exclusively to the Evening News, he denied both sexual harassment claims but admitted a drink problem and bad behaviour.
He alleged he was the victim of a political smear as SNP high command kicked into gear in a bid to avoid losing their dominance on the city council.
The 34-year-old’s new found independence means the SNP is no longer the largest party in the Capital – tying with the Tories on 18 – but still in power with Labour’s help.
Out of action since November, Cllr Ritchie was dropped from planning and education committees as a consequence of fleeing the SNP.
So today posed his last chance to attend a mandatory meeting within six months and protect his seat for the next half-year cycle.
It was a discreet start to the day, Cllr Ritchie making his way through morning drizzle in dark rain coat to the back entrance of city chambers in Cockburn Street.
He declined to speak to the Evening News, saying only: “I need to get into the council house.”
Once inside, Cllr Ritchie, dressed in a navy blue suit, light blue shirt and blue tie, took his specially positioned seat on his own behind the Lib Dems.
Sporting a freshly grown beard and his wedding band, he exchanged greetings with his new neighbours and watched as former SNP colleagues filed past, passively.
First up, declaration of interest and the newly independent member of Leith Walk rose to lodge his status as a registered landlord.
Onto members’ questions, and Cllr Ritchie sat occasionally checking his phone or twiddling his pen as matters ranging from motorbike crime to janitors came and went.
Then came his own offering as he urged council leader Adam McVey to send a message to participants in the Glasgow to Edinburgh ultramarathon on March 31. “The 55-mile course is regarded internationally as one of the premier events in the ultramarathon calendar,” he began.
“Not least because of the stunning setting finishers are treated to when they reach the finishing line in the Capital,” Cllr Ritchie told the chamber, allowing himself a half smile.
“Will the leader join me in congratulating the race organisers and wishing all the competitors well?”
Avoiding eye contact, a stony faced Cllr McVey could barely rise and return to his seat quick enough in replying flatly: “More than happy to do so.”
It was Cllr McVey who suspended Cllr Ritchie amid the allegations and then called on his former colleague to stand down and trigger a by-election.
It was Cllr McVey’s concerns over Cllr Ritchie’s behaviour that led to him agreeing to phone ahead when visiting city chambers. And it was Cllr McVey who drafted in bouncers lurking in the corridors today.
“Many councillors will be upset and rightly concerned by Lewis’ presence in the council chamber,” Cllr McVey had said.
“I’ve made sure that there will be additional security in City Chambers to help make colleagues feel secure but obviously this will not fully address the problem.”
If keen boxer Cllr Ritchie was looking to land a blow on his former friend, he would have to wait till later rounds.
At the coffee break, a tired looking Cllr Ritchie said he “just wanted to get back to work” and chatted amicably to reporters about his own endurance running training – which had taken a hit from his recent travails.
His tough guy image has seen him complete a number of endurance challenges – even making the latter trial for Ninja Warrior UK – a Japanese inspired televised game show described as TV’s toughest obstacle course.
Back in the chamber, and Cllr Ritchie was ploughing his own path – voting with the coalition on a construction charter and Burnshot Bridge works, but against on policing and litter.
And then came the opportunity he was waiting for, as Cllr McVey claimed Tory and Scottish Newspaper Society director John McLellan was motivated by self-interest in looking to throw Russian propaganda machine, Sputnik, out of the Chamber of Commerce.
Rising from his stool and sensing blood, Cllr Ritchie came out swinging: “I thought it’s worthwhile to try and move the personal attacks on to the political arena which I think is more fitting for this chamber.”
The flurry drew taps on the Tory desktops while a clearly dazed Cllr McVey stayed in his corner.
It was to be Cllr Ritchie’s final contribution, leaving shortly afterwards and a little under three-and-half hours into his comeback.