Image for 2016: A very good year in the life of the HVC — now for the final clean-up

*Pic: Adriana Taylor, centre right back, and smiling Huon Valley residents ...

Huon Valley Guessing Games  A fellow critic of Huon Valley Council emailed me at the turn of the year. He said I should write an article headed ‘2016: Not A good Year in the Life of the HVC’. I found his suggestion intriguing: how could two people on the same side of an argument view things so differently?

As early as October last, I was beginning to see that 2016 was shaping up as a damned good year for the council. Now I’m sure it was.

My main reason for thinking that way in October was that council’s management and its dominant councillor group had continued to behave in a manner that eventually would leave Local Government Minister Peter Gutwein no option but (1) to sack the entire elected portion of a totally dysfunctional council; and (2) appoint, for at least a year, a commissioner (who would turn out to be ex-MLC and former Glenorchy mayor Adriana Taylor) with all the authority of the sacked nine councillors.

With my eyes on the future, I thought: “Surely, that has to be good news for the future of our troubled valley.”

So, today, to both council’s then management and then Heart of the Huon councillors, I express my sincerest thanks for behaving in a way that made it almost impossible for our until then dithering LG minister to do anything other than put an end to the charade that local government has been in the Huon since at least since the turn of the century.

News just as welcome was soon to follow. Taking advantage of a clause in general manager Simone Watson’s contract, she too was soon on her way, with a year’s pay plus entitlements (something around $200,000) in her pocket.

For people like me, this clearing of council decks to pave the way for a fresh start was good news, as was the GM’s departure. And the price to us ratepayers? As some have pointed out, if council had decided to sack Watson, it might have had to pay out a lot more than $200,000 if legal action had ensued.)

So there are my basics as to why I can’t agree that it was “not a good year in the life of the HVC”.

COMMISSIONER TAYLOR has since been getting on with the job of sorting through the entrails of the sad sack, reactionary council she inherited. As far as I can glean, she’s doing a meritorious job while presenting to the community what appears to be a largely transparent HVC face.

I’m informed her diary is still stuffed to the gills with appointments as she does her best to cope with a torrent of consultation unparalleled in the near-decade I’ve been watching what previously always looked to me to be a secretive, sometimes furtive mockery of what a local government is supposed to be.

OK, so the council has been sacked; the general manager has gone; the commissioner appears to be making mostly the right moves; and the Huon hasn’t had a spring-summer growing season as favourable as this for years — but all that doesn’t mean everything in our spectacular valley is lovely.

There’s still a mountain of work to be done before Gutwein should even start to think about how he is going to re-establish a popularly elected council. Why, he might even be back on the Opposition benches (even out of parliament) before that moment arrives!

WHEN I first turned up in Australia, in 1961, I didn’t find what I expected. Instead, it was an almost meek, certainly obedient, and generally law-abiding society that welcomed me to Sydney. And the political apathy? It was suffocating. Rarely did I hear anyone venturing a political or religious word.

The journalist mob I fell in with spent a lot of time drinking beer; and, to my Pommy horror, I noticed that stories without a factual base were almost as common as those that had ones.

From a selfish standpoint, however, I could not have been more warmly welcomed. What else should I have expected? I hadn’t come by leaky boat. I was white. I was obviously of Christian extraction. I was a just-demobbed British conscript from the recently concluded Singapore/Malaya Emergency. I was keen on an ale or two (which I found was more than enough for a Pom used only to weak-as-piss English brown ale). I was fairly well-presented. And, at the tender age of 22, I was still pathetically unpoliticised. Consequently, I seemed to fit in remarkably well and remarkably quickly.

So privileged did I feel, I was oblivious of widespread public apathy towards government at all three levels.

When I headed west from Sydney, and passed poverty-stricken Aboriginal women and their babies sitting forlornly on the roadside at Windsor and Richmond, I didn’t wake up to what was then — and remains — the appalling, seemingly mostly unfeeling, lack of caring by white Australians in general towards the people whose land had been invaded and stolen from them.

In 1961, NSW was being run by an almost transparently corrupt Liberal premier. Not long after that, a corrupt Country Party premier took charge of Queensland and ran it for years with the help of his “white shoe brigade”. Then along came a corrupt WA state Labor politician, and many of us still remember the awfulness that was WA Inc. I can’t bring myself to waste time musing on Tasmania’s political track record.

The point I am trying to make is that, half-a-century later, little has changed across Australia. Federal and state governments are still making a mess of Aboriginal care; and, as far as government goes, public apathy remains blanketed thickly over those of us who still, pathetically, believe that good government at all levels —particularly at local level — is vital if we are to keep stable the probably accidental, reasonably well-serviced (if deteriorating) society that most of us enjoy.

WHICH brings me back to the sacking last year of HVC’s elected councillors and removal of its CEO. All of that happened yet there has been barely a hint of debate out there in the community. It’s almost as if no one knows — or, more likely, even cares — that the elected guardians of our democracy are no longer there; or that they were sacked because they failed miserably to keep our democracy healthy.

Commissioner Taylor, moving around the valley with an open ear, is clearly being kept busy. But when it comes to divining what the constituency in general feels about local government happenings (that is, if it feels anything at all), I’m sure no one, not even Taylor, has any real idea.

It’s almost as if local government doesn’t exist. Sure, a grumble or two might flash across our minds when we pay our rates, but I’m certain very few actually think about what our council does (or should be doing); why it exists; or even cares whether it exists.

For most of us, our lives are too comfortable to even start wondering why this is so. Most of us, even if we do know that serious allegations were made last year in representations to the Gutwein HVC board of inquiry, don’t give a damn — and we care even less that, unless some very secret activities are going on in Gutwein’s office, nothing is being done about those allegations.

It’s not Taylor’s job to look into them — even though she has promised to consider, one by one, the findings and recommendations of the board — because they are beyond her remit from the minister.

But they are matters so serious that Gutwein, if he is to fulfil his duties as a minister of the crown, must deal with them — and thoroughly. If he does not, he has no chance of rebuilding his now virtually non-existent credibility with voters before his boss calls another state election (which some are now saying will be in October this year rather than March next year, by which time it has to be held).

For all the talk, we’re unlikely to see serious moves through the rest of the life of this parliament in relation to the much-vaunted talk a couple of years back of LG reform and possible amalgamations.

In my Guessing Games of November 23 last ( http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/peter-gutwein-do-your-duty-for-the-huon/ ), I made vague reference to what it is that Gutwein’s staff should be closely examining. This is part of what I said:

A few subject headings: Asbestos. Entrapment. Leasing. Jetty. Bullying. Compliance. Credit cards. [Staff] Appointments . . .

And questions such as the following I believe are worthy of consideration by Gutwein’s office. Will it:
— Investigate the circumstances that resulted in a council management report asserting, in papers made available to the public, that Mayor Peter Coad was guilty of 15 instances of non-compliance with Gutwein’s June 15 Ministerial Direction 3 to HVC? [Coad rejected the report’s assertions.]

— Investigate the circumstances that resulted in an alleged delay of several years between HVC being informed about broken asbestos in the Cygnet Town Hall and council’s dealing with it?

— Inquire what role, if any, a councillor had in the appearance, without permit, of a jetty on the Huon, which then continued to operate for about two years in an “illegal and unapproved” (the words of HVC executive Matthew Grimsey) state?

— Investigate the circumstances in which a camping ground was leased, on two occasions, to a family that has/or had friendly ties with a councillor, and, on one of those occasions, to a sitting councillor?
— Confirm or deny that a matter relating to HVC has been referred to the Tasmanian DPP?

— Inquire why the mayor was virtually isolated from negotiations that led to the privatisation of the management of the Geeveston Town Hall?

— Investigate events surrounding a bridge at Dover?

SOMETHING else that must not be forgotten is the HVC legal report that no one will release. Why hasn’t a single sacked councillor found the necessary defiance/courage to put it out there in the public arena? Each has a copy, which they had to be given because that report had to be approved by a closed meeting of the full council.

I can’t imagine that then-mayor Coad and then-councillors Liz Smith and Ian Mackintosh would have voted to support acceptance of a report almost certainly produced (without the knowledge of the mayor) as a consequence of collaboration between the general manager and the law firm involved. The report, I strongly believe, was designed to counter the findings and recommendations of the BoI, put the GM in as good a light as possible and the mayor in as bad a light as possible.

Should that report ever reach the light of day, it would only be fair to the ex-mayor that it be presented juxtaposed to the BoI report. That way, one would be able to see why management would not have wanted the mayor to know about the legal report’s contents until it was fait accompli and on the council’s agenda.

That issue, to this writer’s mind, is an ongoing scandal that Taylor (acting as a nine-in-one council) has to deal with. I can’t believe that report was designed to do anything but discredit a man elected by the people to be their community leader.

I also believe that report was yet another step in a conscious strategy — perhaps not always well co-ordinated — to make it difficult for the mayor to perform his duties to the best of his ability.

HOBART’S MERCURY has promised to continue to concentrate on local government stories this year. In an editorial on January 13, it said: “The Mercury’s increased focus on local issues and the machinations of local government has not always been welcomed. So be it. This is not something we will shy away from.”

My question is, exactly who is it that the Mercury thinks has not welcomed its “increased focus”? I’ve seen and heard few complaints about the Mercury’s reporting, except from those with vested interests who say the stories are hurting the valley’s reputation. In fact, I’m sure valley people would like to see lots more Mercury stuff about LG “issues and machinations”.

My point is this: I do not look forward to a valley future that continues to be decided by those few vested interests that have had the ear of the council’s controlling group these past couple of decades. A return to local government democracy in the Huon must be in the best interests of everyone.

It was refreshing to hear Commissioner Taylor say at the November 30 HVC meeting: “. . . There will be no cronyism in this council from now on [my emphasis] . . .”

A MEASURE of the level of apathy towards local government in the Huon Valley might be gleaned from the interest the sacked nine councillors have shown since Gutwein got rid of them in early October.

At the first councillor-less ordinary meeting, on October 26, only ex-councillors Bruce Heron, Liz Smith and Mike Wilson were in the public gallery to watch Taylor chair her first public HVC meeting. Ever since, only Smith has attended ordinary and special meetings.

Where are all those ex-councillors who always professed to be so solidly bound in service to the community? They shouldn’t be licking their wounds, because they know full well that they got what the council as an entity deserved. Maybe it’s just that some of them are too busy out there scheming to be ready for the return to elections.

Several sources tell me that longtime mayoral wannabe Mike Wilson is well advanced in his preparations to return to the electoral fray (when Gutwein gives the all-clear), and that he already has a ticket of “independents” that he hopes will lay the basis for him to head another Heart of the Huon equivalent. (Perhaps Wilson would like to tell us about his plans.)

Also, after quite keen initial interest in what are now debateless, motionless council meetings, the numbers in the public gallery are declining. At the last council meeting, at the end of December, only four of us sat in the public gallery, one of us being Commissioner Taylor’s partner. Let’s hope, after the silly season runs out at the end of the month, a few more council watchers will show up.

A SMALL, yet significant, HVC management failure is evident from council’s 2015-16 annual report: it has no message from the mayor though there is one from the general manager.

Acting General Manager Wayne Thorpe explained late last year that council correspondence showed that the mayor had not responded to an email from management about a mayor’s message. Mayor Coad recalls otherwise. And someone else in the loop has a third version of why there was no mayor’s message in the annual report. I have a view on which of the three versions is nearest actuality.

Whatever the real explanation, it is not unreasonable to regard the absence of a mayor’s message — probably for the first time since HVC’s first annual report in the early 1990s — as further evidence of management’s failure to maintain communication and good relations with the council’s senior elected member.

AN UNRESOLVED issue (a legacy of the HVC turmoil) is whether council will pay the huge legal bills Coad was forced to run up after some time in 2015. Those bills were, as I see it, a consequence of Coad’s: (1) need to defend himself against a hostile management supported by the controlling Heart of the Huon group led by Mike Wilson; (2) need to defend his reputation as an experienced longtime senior public servant against abuse and unsubstantiated allegations from those who could not bring themselves to treat with respect a people’s mayor of impeccable manners who happened not to be always in agreement with them; and (3) desire to improve council governance practices that he perceived, at best, as less than adequate.

Consider these points. HVC management spent scores of thousands of dollars on a variety of, what I believe to be, often-unnecessary requests for legal advice.

Three councillors (members of the Heart of the Huon controlling group), without council’s authority, informally committed council to paying a lawyer nearly $400 an hour to act as a minute-taker at a meeting at which, I believe, they wanted to contrive a situation that could lead to the resignation of Mayor Coad mid-term. A later formal meeting voted to retrospectively approve the hiring of the lawyer recommended by the “informal” trio ( http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/how-low-can-huons-council-go/ ).

And there appears to be evidence that legal advice, almost certainly without consultation with the mayor, was bought by council to defend both its interests and those of the CEO, but, I believe, not the mayor’s reputation.

These examples alone add up to an apparently strong case that, when a mayor is being treated with such contempt, it would be sensible for him to fight legal advice with legal advice — and to reasonably expect the council that was treating him so badly would pay for that legal advice.

My understanding is that Coad’s approaches for assistance from council to meet his legal costs were either denied or ignored. And continue to be denied.

The fact that the former mayor has hardly been seen, let alone heard, since council’s sacking, suggests to me that he has been — as is in character with his respectful nature — holding his peace while his request for reimbursement by council of his legal bills is being considered.

My further instinct is that council is still resisting what looks like a reasonable request, and one that most ratepayers would not mind paying. There are many of us in the valley who resented paying: $54,000 for a law firm’s rebuttal of the BoI findings; perhaps thousands (if not in legal fees, in a senior officer’s time) for the preparation of a badly flawed HVC recommendation that the first Bewsher application to construct an export terminal at Surges Point on Waterloo Bay — to service huge barges — be approved; and whatever legal expenses were incurred when council spent two years making a decision while a councillor’s commercial vessel was allowed to be moored at an illegal and unapproved jetty at Franklin.

Other examples of council’s freewheeling expenditure on legal advice and wasted staff time escape me for the moment.

But I don’t think many would mind paying a mere $40,000 to meet the legal bills of the man they elected, in October 2014, to represent their interests; a man who was subjected from the first day of his term as mayor to the (sometimes open) contempt of fellow councillors, some of whom seemed to have a much more intimate association with management than the mayor was ever able to achieve.

What we do know has happened since Gutwein sacked the councillors, is that around $200,000 has been spent to get rid of HVC’s CEO. So surely it would make it just a little bit even stevens if it paid Peter Coad’s legal bills, the total of which pales into insignificance compared with council’s legal bills over these past two years or so.

IT WAS, indeed, a ghastly 2016 for Planet Earth. But down here in the Huon many good things happened — and it got better as the year wore on. It would be a great shame for our lovely valley if, in 2017, there was no progress towards getting to the bottom of most of the really serious issues that, down the decades, led to Huon Valley Council becoming so eminently and deservedly sackable. — Bob Hawkins

*Bob Hawkins, a journalist since the mid-1950s, has been covering the affairs of Huon Valley Council for more than seven years. His collected work is at http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php/category-article/88