Image for A chance for Gutwein to do the right thing

First published March 9.

Huon Valley Guessing Games

On March 29, it should become clear whether Huon Valley Council intends to play fair with its ex-mayor; or whether it will continue in its pre-intervention ways of seeming to pay little more than lip service to the notion of good governance.

On council’s agenda will be management’s report on a petition (presented at the February meeting) calling for immediate payment of the legal expenses that then-Councillor Peter Coad was forced to run up while he was (1) defending himself against a council that, for two years, had made it virtually impossible for him to carry out his duties as mayor; and (2) striving, mostly with no management support, to meet his responsibilities under the Local Government Act 1993, to provide information demanded of him by Local Government Minister Peter Gutwein’s Board of Inquiry as it went about its task of deciding whether the council was dysfunctional.

While HVC management was spending scores of thousands of dollars on legal advice to counter the BoI’s likely dysfunctionality finding, and paying at least one legal bill incurred as a result of an “informal” (therefore, unauthorised) activity by three councillors, no permission was forthcoming from management for payment of Mayor Coad’s bills resulting from being forced to personally resort to legal advice.

(Some months before Gutwein appointed the BoI, Coad had told the minister that HVC was dysfunctional. In October last, after the BoI had come to the same conclusion, the elected council was sacked, and, about a month later, then-General Manager Simone Watson was terminated by the Gutwein-appointed Commissioner Adriana Taylor. See http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/peter-gutwein-do-your-duty-for-the-huon/

THE presentation of the petition to the February meeting is paraphrased in that meeting’s draft minutes. The minutes say, inter alia: “The petition . . . complies with . . . Section 57(2) of the Local Government Act 1993. However prior to presenting this it was necessary to seek legal advice on the contents of the petition and in particular the statement given in support of the Petition. The statement may be subject to Regulation 15 of the Local Government (Meeting Procedures) Regulations 2015 and or may contain defamatory information or be the subject of future litigation. A report will be prepared for the March Council meeting and further legal advice will be sought on the redacted information for its possible inclusion in that report. Therefore parts of the petition have been redacted.”

Especially interesting is that last word, redacted. To put readers in the picture, the redacted “statement given in support of the Petition” reads thus:

 The General Manager did not work co-operatively with the Mayor, as required by the Local Government Act 1993, sections 27 1(ba) and 62 1(g) (Board of Inquiry Findings 9, 10, 46 and 54). Therefore, in June 2015, the Mayor had to seek legal advice on how to remedy the situation to protect the role of the Mayor of the Huon Valley Council and the proper functioning of the Council.

 The General Manager lodged a complaint against the Mayor, Peter Coad, in August 2015 thus requiring him to seek further legal advice to respond to the complaint.

 The General Manager was provided with legal assistance costs by Council in her formal complaint against the Mayor. The Mayor was denied procedural fairness and natural justice when the General Manager refused to pay his legal costs to respond to the complaint.

 The General Manager advised councillors on 30 September, 2015, that legal advice required by Councillors for the Board of Inquiry would probably be funded by council’s insurers.

 On December 4, 2015, the Board of Inquiry required the Mayor to provide information that was legally correct and for which he therefore had to get legal advice on behalf of Council.

 Other councillors commissioned lawyers in August 2015, without the authorisation of council, and the legal services were paid for by the council, illustrating possible discrimination against the Mayor by the council.

On February 22, when Acting GM Wayne Thorpe was explaining the need for the redaction to the public gallery, one got the feeling that here was a council management treading on what some might think to be rotten-egg shells. Might some minds, thinking politically, not appreciate the dot-point information being bandied around publicly any further than it had been in the circulating petition? Might those words be going a bit too close to the heart of the real reasons Mayor Coad went through two years of hell, as he — always politely and respectfully, and with open and honest endeavour — determinedly pursued his goal of achieving good-governance practices by the council he chaired?

A mountain of credible evidence exists covering most aspects of the problems that have plagued HVC, especially since the turn of the century. A lot of it, seemingly to little avail, was presented to Minister Gutwein via his BoI. (My experience of watching Gutwein’s Local Government Division in action has been about as inspiring as watching the LGAT (Local Government Association of Tasmania) permanently failing to serve the best interests of the people — the public — that own the councils.)

HOWEVER, to get the focus back on Peter Coad’s legal bills — believed to be around $40,000.

For the moment, the resolution of this sad Huon Valley saga rests in the hands of Commissioner Taylor (sitting as nine-councillors-in-one).

Since her arrival at Huonville last October, in many ways Taylor (ex Legislative Council MP and former Glenorchy mayor) has been a welcome breath of fresh air. For too many years — enveloped in a local-government fog of stagnant, stifling, secretive political humidity — a lot of us had been gasping in disbelief that any council could perform in the way that it did — and get away with it.

I’m convinced Taylor’s vigorous, seemingly indefatigable, work rate is a genuine attempt to persuade the community that the old secretive ways of council are behind us; that everything from now on will be done in the open and according to the book; and that transparency will be the rule.

However, on some issues one senses it could be politics as usual, one being the appointment process used this year to find a new HVC general manager, of which we only got clearer details after the event. But that’s another story.

IN THE case of Coad’s legal bills, the commissioner’s argument that she must protect public monies is, of course, valid. And she has made this clear whenever the opportunity has presented itself. However, she did say earlier this year that her heart told her at least some of the ex-mayor’s legal expenses should be paid.

In view of credible reports that thousands of dollars of public money has been spent by council down the years, especially on ever-more-frequent resort to legal advice, Peter Coad’s $40,000 legal costs appear as chicken feed.

It’s a figure that pales compared with one council bill for a legal report obviously designed to present council management to the BoI in a good light (and the mayor certainly not). That report alone cost ratepayers and taxpayers $54,000 — and we, the people, who paid for it, have still not been allowed to set eyes on it. We paid $54,000 to lawyers for a document and we are still not allowed to see it!!!!

This is the kind of stuff that gives our so-called democracy a bad name. But silly me, what’s this democracy bit I’m talking about?

ON MARCH 29, Taylor could put an end to this festering sore in valley politics. But, if she doesn’t . . . ?

Minister Gutwein — whose strange and erratic strategy of knee-jerk-and-delaying-tactic has not served him well as he has wrestled, largely unsuccessfully, with the big issues in his unwieldy Treasury/Local Government portfolio — knows that this niggling, but persistent ethical matter of Peter Coad’s legal expenses is not going to go away.

The fumbling, bumbling Hodgman Government faces the people next year, so surely payment of a cheque for around $40,000 to an unfairly treated ex-mayor would be a cheap price to pay to help one problem go away? It might even persuade a few Tory voters down here in the Deep South not to rat on their party come election day.

There’s nothing that I can see in the LG Act to say council cannot recompense Coad for his valiant, personally health-damaging, efforts to bring the strange concept of good governance to the Huon.

After all, Huon Valley Council has paid all the bills resulting from the actions of those who made Coad’s life as mayor miserable from the day he returned to council in November 2014 on a platform of sustainable change for an economically shaky region.

But I’m not keeping my fingers crossed. After all, this is Tasmania. —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