MAJOR payouts to council chiefs for overseeing elections must be better justified or overhauled, electoral law experts have claimed.
Calling for further transparency in the payments made to returning officers, a Holyrood inquiry into the system was told there were issues of public confidence around the fees which were at risk of undermining faith in the democratic process.
But MSPs were also warned that any push to make the system more open were in danger of being turned into a "witch hunt", with council chief executives put under pressure to either accept or give away the cash.
They were also cautioned on simply pushing for reform of the system on the basis of public disquiet over levels of payments.
The Herald revealed earlier this year how pay-outs to returning officers had exceeded £1million in just two years, with several of Scotland's 32 council chiefs collect tens of thousands on top of their salaries for overseeing May's Holyrood election and European Union referendum a few weeks later.
After just 18 months at the helm of the country's biggest council, Glasgow's chief executive banked £75,000 over and above her £160,000 wages by the conclusion of the Brexit poll.
There have also been accusations of council chiefs topping up their final salary pension pots by retiring after an election when their earnings are boosted by returning officer duties.
At today's meeting of Holyrood's local government and communities committee, academics and campaigners told MSPs that while returning officers were key to the electoral process there was a lack of transparency around the whole system, who received what level of payments and how the cash was used.
The SNP's Kenny Gibson said he had been aware that when a councillor in Glasgow, chief executives would retire after an election as their fee would get added to their final salary pension.
He added: "We're not talking about a one-off payment. This is a significant amount of money which the taxpayer funds for a number of years and that can't be justified."
Amongst those giving evidence was Navraj Singh Ghaleigh, a senior Lecturer at Edinburgh University specialising in electoral law. He warned committee members they had to see the returning officer as performing a statutory role which was independent from their chief executive's job.
But Mr Ghaleigh added: "The system needs better justified and if that justification isn't forthcoming then it has to change. Justification has to be the starting point for any review."
Responding to Mr Gibson he added: "I have been on public record previously about this. There is a serious risk that goes to the question of public confidence in the system. Around the structure and the rates I would be in agreement that there needs to be a reconsideration."
Tory Graham Simpson said returning officers were already "very very well remunerated people and in the eyes of the public this is part of their job", adding that the fee was a "bonus".
Dr Toby James, a senior lecturer in UK politics at the University of East Anglia, said he agreed "it makes sense to review these fees being paid"!, adding that he hoped it could "kick off a conversation across the UK".
He added: "Transparency could happen very quickly at a low cost and provide us with the information needed for a wider review. But it's worth stressing that a review into the fees shouldn't be the only area looked that. There are a lot of pressures (running an election) going on underneath."
Jonathan Shaffi, of the Electoral Reform Society, said returning officers should be "ambassadors for the electoral system" but that this couild be undermined by both the level of and lack of transparency around the payments.
Committee chairman, the SNP's Bob Doris, said the recommendations could be later fed into the Scottish Government's plan to bring forward an election bill within the current parliament.
Representatives of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, the Electoral Management Board, council umbrella group Cosla and the Association of Electoral Administrators and Returning Officers will appear before the committee next week.
Loading article content