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• *Pic: Geoffrey Swan, Lonnavale: This is our Community river as at 3pm today 9 (see below).

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Ken Studley from Huon Valley Council website.

Huon Valley Guessing Games: Huon Valley Council inquiry move is enough to gag on In my military days (UK and Singapore-Malaya 1959-61), I learnt that, despite England’s claim to be the birthplace of modern democracy, no such animal existed in the ranks of the RASC (Royal Army Service Corps, better known to most of us conscripts as the Royal Army Shit-kickers). In fact, so scarce was democracy in the British army, the mantra thrown at us sprogs as we slogged our way through basic training was “Keep your mouths shut and never disobey or question an order from an officer”. I can’t imagine that Australian brass has been acting much differently down the years since.

Thinking about this the other day, I realised that Huon Valley’s Councillor Ken Studley and I have one thing in common, military service, though I’m sure his was a much more dynamic and dramatic contribution to Australia’s imagined security concerns than my well-behind-the-lines HQ toilings at the tail-end of the Malay Emergency.

However, after reading Studley’s “motion on notice” for tonight’s (September 23) council meeting, I got the notion that Studley found more to approve of than I did in the military’s aversion to the concepts of democracy, freedom of speech, transparency . . .

His motion (item 13.011/15 on the council agenda tonight) reads:

That:
1. The Council acknowledges the following:
The Minister for Local Government and Planning’s statement to the media when announcing the Board of Inquiry also said that quote “This council is on the brink of Civil War”;
Whilst being the words of the Minister, it is recognised that these words and the subsequent reporting by the media may be harmful to the Huon Valley as a brand and a region;
Any councillor speaking about matters relating to the Board of Inquiry to any media organisation, or indeed any person, outside the forum of council has the potential to further put at risk the Huon Valley brand and region.
In the interests of residents and ratepayers of the Huon Valley the formal position of the council in response to the Board of Inquiry is that there are various matters under investigation by the Board of Inquiry established by the Minister for Local Government and Planning and council would not want to prejudice that process by commenting any further and that no comment will be made.

To me, that’s pretty frightening stuff, especially in light of Local Government Minister Peter Gutwein’s declaration, when announcing, on September 8, the inquiry into HVC affairs, that “ratepayers will not be affected during the inquiry and council will continue its normal functions”.

My reading of Studley’s motion is that he is requesting that council virtually abandons all form of communication with the public on the specific issue of the board of inquiry; he is prepared to make it difficult for media to stay abreast of developments in this important inquiry; he is trying to dictate to fellow councillors that they keep their mouths shut in case they “further put at risk the Huon Valley brand and region”; and that he is confident that he knows what’s good for “the interests of residents and ratepayers”.

Studley’s motion, I feel, is a load of dangerous, anti-democratic poppycock that, in the short-term, if passed will do council’s reputation more harm than good. It should be rejected by all councillors.

For a start, as a servant of all residents of the Huon Valley, council has a duty to keep them fully informed. Second, Studley does not seem to appreciate that it is not the “brand” of the Huon Valley that is in question — it is the brand, for what it’s worth, of the Huon Valley Council.

Studley, as an elected representative of the people, has a primary duty to serve the interests of electors (by communicating with them and keeping them informed), not to protect the image of a council long tainted in the eyes of hundreds, possibly thousands of the valley’s 15,000 or so residents.

Sadly, I don’t think Studley would have put up such a motion if he did not think he had the support of at least four of his fellow Heart of the Huon team members, a block that controls all votes on council. So I feel confident, barring a technicality, that Studley will get his way tonight as he simultaneously tries to seal new cracks that might be appearing in the cone of secrecy that hides from view the behaviour of a council whose isolationism and lack of vision renders it something of a laughing stock on the Tasmanian local government scene.

NOW to LG Minister Peter Gutwein’s September 8 announcement of the board of inquiry and its terms of reference ( TT here ). The inquiry, he said, was “to investigate complaints against council members and staff”. He echoed the sentiments of Mayor Peter Coad (the attack target of the Heart of the Huon) in saying: “It has become apparent that Huon Valley Council is deeply divided and, if left unattended, may soon become dysfunctional to the detriment of ratepayers and confidence in the municipality . . . This course of action has been triggered by a large number of complaints the Government has received relating to the core function and roles of the Council.”

Then came an ambiguous observation: “Complaints have been received from the majority of the elected members including the Mayor as well as from senior staff and ratepayers.” Gutwein might have added that the natures of the complaints were not all of a kind, nor were all directed at the same targets.

Since taking over as mayor last year, Coad has been walking the tightrope of always having to officially state council’s policies and decisions yet simultaneously reserving the right as an elected councillor to argue for the platform he espoused at last October’s council election. The Heart of the Huon team seems to think that Coad, by being elected mayor, has forfeited his right to have an opinion of his own.

Often at open council meetings, words and body-language leave public observers with no doubt about Heart of the Huon councillors’ contempt for the ever-courteous and forthright Coad, who, at a recent council meeting, politely refused to withdraw an assertion that his position as mayor had been verbally threatened by Councillor Mike Wilson.

PRESUMABLY, the board of inquiry members have now settled to the task that they have been ordered to report on by the end of November. The terms of reference as presented on September 9, are broad, including examination of: “representation and promotion of the decisions and policies of the council by the Mayor”; “the timeliness and quality of advice provided to the Mayor by senior staff”; “the management of Council assets”; “demands being placed on the General Manager by the Mayor and the requirement for the Council to provide a safe workplace”; “implementation of financial policies and practices with the Council”; and “compliance by elected representatives with the Council’s Code of Conduct”.

Much of this was puzzling to this writer. What seemed to be absent was a focus also on the performance of council’s senior management. And there was little suggestion in Gutwein’s observation that “I hope by taking this action there will be no need to take the strongest course of action allowed under the Act, suspending the council and calling fresh elections” that HVC management was a serious target of the inquiry’s investigations. What he seemed to be intimating, I believe, was that once a new election was held it would be back to business as usual.

However, from DPAC’s website — http://www.dpac.tas.gov.au/divisions/local_government/board_of_inquiry_-_huon_valley_council — the reasons for calling the inquiry are stated more specifically than those in the minister’s September 8 media release. Now they read:

Complaints by councillors against the Mayor, alleging non-compliance with the functions of mayor under the Local Government Act
Complaints by ratepayers against councillors, raising code of conduct and financial governance issues
Complaints by the Mayor against the General Manager relating to failure to fulfil functions
Complaints by the General Manager against the Mayor about non-compliance with the Act and other issues
Complaints by the Mayor and another councillor against the Council, raising governance and operational issues.

That’s a mighty jumble of knitting to untangle.

May those delegated to sort this lot out make a good fist of it. At least DPAC’s dot-point reasons now give observers more confidence that valley residents can reasonably expect an even-handed examination of a broad spectrum of council activities. Not only serving management and councillors should be involved. All past management and councillors since at least the turn of the century should be called. A lot of questions remain unanswered in the wake of HVC’s past 15 years.

WHAT the public is not aware of — and no one seems to be talking about it — is whether either of the board members is acquainted with anyone whose behaviour might be subject to investigation. In a state as tiny as Tasmania, it is well nigh impossible to appoint a totally independent panel without resorting to recruiting interstate. I recall at least one so-called independent inquiry into goings-on inside HVC that came up with a very convenient finding for management. 

One intending public representor to the board of inquiry was informed yesterday (September 22) that the board was about to invite public submissions. An email from the Department of Premier and Cabinet says: “The Board is endeavouring to get ads in papers this Wednesday calling for public submissions as well as having a one pager that explains the inquiry process. If not Wednesday then certainly Saturday’s papers. All those seeking to make submissions will be notified.”

If Studley gets his way tonight, don’t look for helpful information about the inquiry from Huon Valley Council. Instead, keep an eye open for, or an ear glued to, public, private and ABC media outlets — those are the places where we will find relatively unfettered freedom of speech and democracy at work. — Bob Hawkins

Michael Atkin, ABC: No comment: Huon Valley councillors vote against speaking publically about investigation

• Board of Inquiry – Huon Valley Council

Dear Mr Michael Stevens and Ms Jill Taylor,

The motion put forward by Ken Studley at this evening’s council meeting is absolutely scandalous and is an absolute insult to our Community and our democracy.

I am reminded of a motion that was voted against when Mayor Coad first took office – along the lines of a suggestion by Cr Smith if I recall correctly, to meet the local community over a sausage sizzle or similar at the various community halls and discuss matters and concerns in our local area. It was struck down by Councillors who did not want to engage with the electorate – an absolutely outrageous neglect of councillors’ responsibilities.

This motion by Cr Studley smacks of the same insult – as residents and ratepayers of the Huon Valley it is our absolute right to engage with members of our council and councillors over matters affecting our Community and our Council. Cr Studley has no mandate whatsoever to place such a gag on anyone. The shenanigans and obstructions by the “core group of out of touch councillors” is totally out of order and I will not have my freedom of speech and my right to inquire about council matters controlled by such an inane motion.

I am also reminded that Tasmania has a 51% literacy problem, and that some 70% of Tasmanians are descendants of our early convict settlers and of those some 60% of the convicts were transported to Tasmania because of serious crimes of murder and rape. Time to step up councillors and engage with your consitutents.

I implore your Inquiry to immediately step in and take action against this ridiculous motion using whatever legislative power is at the disposal of Hon. Minister Peter Gutwein.

Yours sincerely, 
Geoffrey Swan,
Lonnavale

• Shane Johnson in Comments: … To speak on this matter in any way would, in the words of the motion, be ‘against the formal position of Council and ‘not in the interests of the residents and ratepayers of the Huon Valley’. There is conjecture on whether this motion is enforceable or legal but even discussing this will be used to wedge the Mayor. And that is the whole point of this exercise…to stop the Mayor from speaking knowing that if he does his comments will be used against him. The cry will go out ‘there he is acting against the motion and horror of horrors damaging the brand of the Huon Valley’. I note that there was no end date to the ‘gag’ motion. Will that mean that even after the Board of Enquiry report is released, Councillors will be forever forbidden to comment on its findings? This is nothing more than another schoolyard powerplay by those frustrated at the result of the last election.  …

• Trish Kyne in Comments: I attended the council meeting last night (23rd). It was the first time I have ever seen the GM smile (for the cameras) and introduce the staff and their positions at council. It was also the first time I have ever seen Cr Studley leave the chambers during a planning application vote during the 2015 meetings. I believe the ‘gag’ motion was as much of a threat to residents not to speak to anyone as it was to shut down the councilor’s communications with the public. As Bob has said the motion was passed by the HotH team. What he did not say was that Liz Smith and Lydia Eastley both spoke eloquently against the motion, reflecting the values of the community. Mayor Coad equally reflected the residents concerns as he read a prepared statement - also against the motion. One of the interesting items in the statement was that one of the Councillors had retained a lawyer to proffer legal advice to the Councillors - at the expense of the ratepayers! Mayor Coad is paying for his own legal advice.  At the end of Coad’s statement there was a rousing burst of sustained applause. Cr Studley had his back to the gallery and visibly flinched …

• Geoffrey Swan, Lonnavale: This is what Huon Aquaculture’s Fish Shit is doing to our Community River

Dear Mr W Ford, Ms S Watson, Mrs F Bender, Mr P Bender, Mr J Diggle and Mr P Coad and Huon Valley Councillors

Apart from hearing from Mr Ford that he would respond today due to being in hospital (nothing as at 3pm today however)… not a peep out of anyone apart from our neighbours and other interested parties – nothing from Councillors, nothing from Ms Watson, nothing from the Benders!

Given the information now coming out of the woodwork around the HVC Inquiry, (yes Councillors – your constituents are talking…) I am now understanding better why our HVC Councillors and our HVC General Manager have no interest whatsoever in our Community River in Lonnavale.

I can only applaud Mayor Peter Coad for raising the alarm, and for the Hon Peter Gutwein for stepping in, and I can only hope the Board of Inquiry will once and for all root out root any hint of crony capitalism that is affecting the Huon Brand (not as Cr Studley is trying to suggest otherwise through a possibly illegal motion to gag everyone).

So, three weeks on, 26 million litres of sewage water discharged daily into our river from Huon Aquaculture’s Hatchery ... containing raw unadulterated Fish Shit and high nutrient fish feed. This is our Community river - The Russell River - as at 3pm today. A freshwater mountain stream that supplies household drinking and bathing water for the residents of Lonnavale, and it is simply getting worse by the day. Under Lorkins Bridge we are already seeing long tentacles of algae up to 40cm in length.

Using our river as your personal sewer Mr and Mrs Bender just needs to stop! Why will you not respond to my emails and questions?

Why are you telling me you do not have the $1 million dollars required to replace the antiquated Flow Through system with a sealed Recirculating System – and then the problem goes away.

I will accept emails or phone calls from anyone… please?