Image for Huon Valley Guessing Games: A council with no shame

ON a field of battle, and with all’s-fair-in-war the rules, such a struggle would go down in the annals as a memorable rearguard action that defiantly resisted the inevitable: defeat. Glory words — implacable, defiant, legend, freedom, true grit, justice — would flow, and the heroes would be well sung.

In the battleground that was Huonville Council Chambers last Monday evening (July 4), there was no actual blood-letting — but it was the scene of a dogged rearguard action by council’s controlling Heart of the Huon (HotH) group.

In light of the findings of a minister-appointed board of inquiry that spent many months coming to the conclusion that Huon Valley Council (HVC) is hopelessly dysfunctional — and, more to the point, way beyond mediation — it was a rearguard action that warrants round condemnation.

My reading of the council that I pay rates to is that HotH members are more interested in saving their arses than they are in responding positively and transparently to the directives that Local Government Minister Peter Gutwein has laid down for the council to meet.

What is not generally known to Huon Valley ratepayers is that council has already paid the better part of $60,000 to lawyers to help it prepare responses designed to refute the BoI findings and recommendations. This information was provided to council by the general manager in response to a “question on notice” from Cr Liz Smith at an earlier meeting.

HAVING watched this awful council in action for about eight years, and limiting myself to the odd gasp of exasperation, I could no longer restrain myself as I left the chamber on July 4. I told the Heart group what a bloody disgrace I thought they were. Heart leader Mike Wilson jeered that I should go home and get a good sleep. I repeated my accusation. He repeated his suggestion. I left. And council went into closed session to consider further ways to foil an open and transparent council response to Gutwein’s ultimatum: if council doesn’t learn how to behave, he’ll sack it within six months.

I am still shocked by the anger I was feeling, having witnessed the recalcitrant Heart group in full stalling mode. Surely by now, I thought, I should be able to leave a council meeting hopelessly resigned to believing that — when it comes to the Heart’s behaviour — I simply have been watching men behaving badly. My problem is that I still can’t get it out of my mind that these people are elected to provide a service of benefit to the community that elects them.

It was surprising to me that the three councillors outside of the Heart umbrella — Mayor Peter Coad, Ian Mackintosh and Liz Smith — did not register more resistance to the move into closed council to discuss how the ministerially-ordained so-called mediation process would be started. After all, it was fairly obvious that it had been generally agreed in open council that councillors, in closed session, would not be considering appointing anyone to handle the mediation process. That was a decision to be left to another day. The process by which to find mediators could easily have been handled in open council.

Aware of the non-Heart trio’s persistent advocacy for open, honest and transparent council behaviour, it may have been, in the heat of the moment, that they were caught off guard, and failed to notice that the move to closed council was neatly tucked into a very long staff recommendation that was dealing with much weightier matters.

Consequently, the nearly 30 of us in the public gallery had to leave so that the “really secret” business could begin. (I seem to recall that, somewhere, the BoI report says too much non-confidential business has been finding its way onto closed-council agendas.)

BEING a person who is all too often eager to find goodness in others, I was yet again disappointed to see the HotH team resolutely vote down a plea for reason, good sense and a commitment to meeting standards reasonably expected by the community.

The plea came from Mayor Coad at the start of the debate on agenda item 4.15.024/14 Board of Inquiry Ministerial Directions. Coad’s obvious intention was to not only give council a chance to be proper in its deliberations, but to be seen to be proper. His motion would have done both of those things in relation to the ridiculous order from Gutwein that mediation (despite the BoI’s firm position that any chance of successful mediation among councillors and the GM was long past) was still the way to go. The mayor’s motion read:

Having considered the Ministerial decisions of the 15 June 2016 and the difficulties for Council to manage this process within the timeframes proposed, it is recommended that the following actions be implemented immediately by Council to ensure an open and transparent process.

1. That Council immediately calls for expression of interests for an independent management consultant to manage the implementation of the Ministerial Directions on behalf of Council and arrange and manage the implementation of the mediation required by the Ministerial Directions.

2. Terms of reference for the Consultancy

2.1 Provide council with a project management plan to implement council responsibilities detailed in the Ministerial Directions of the 15 June 2016.

2.2 Arrange and manage the Mediation processes as required by the Ministerial Directions, including the appointment of a suitable qualified person to undertake the Mediation. This person or persons may be internal or external to the successful consultancy.

2.3 Arrange and manage all reporting required by the Ministerial Directions and liaise with the Local Government Division of the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

2.4 Outline to Council all reporting periods on the implementation of the Ministerial Directions.

2.5 Provide recommendations to Council on any matter identified that requires a Council decision, directly or indirectly associated with the Ministerial Directions.

2.6 The consultancy must commence on the 15 July 2016 by arranging a meeting between the General Manager and Mayor to outline the Mediation process unless the Minister approves an extension of time as proposed in part 6 of this motion.

3. That the Governance Committee be delegated by Council to overview the management of the Consultancy and provide recommendations to Council as required.

4. Time table for consultancy appointment

6 July 2016 Advertise for Management Consultant

12 July 2016 closing date for expressions of Interests

14 July 2016 Special Council Meeting Appointment of Consultant

15 July 2016 Consultant to meet with Mayor and GM to arrange Mediation processes.

5. Consultancy expressions of interests to provide details of their organisations, experience, knowledge and skills to deliver the Ministerial directions on behalf of Council.

In addition:

—The consultancy expression of interests must address the Terms of Reference for the Consultancy

— Details of payment schedules to be provided.

— Council reserves the right to not accept the highest or lowest expression of interests to undertake the consultancy.

— Expressions of interests from organisations must provide an ABN number and demonstrate competency to complete the terms of reference for the consultancy.

6. That Council seeks from the Minister an extension of time for Direction 1(a ) for 30 days to 45 days due to the negotiations required to appoint an appropriate consultant and ensure proper governance process are put in place to ensure a successful outcome from those negotiations.

COAD’S MOTION suggests he had tried to consider all angles in coming up with a process that would enable the council he represents to honestly face its electorate and be able to say: “We are doing our best to be, and be seen to be, as open and transparent as possible.”

Coad spoke for his motion along these lines. 

He said he had raised the issue of a special meeting at council’s June 22 meeting to deal with the Gutwein directives. Although there were “problematic” issues, he had sensed general agreement for a special meeting.

Next day, June 23, he emailed the GM asking for a special meeting “at her earliest convenience”, and asked for three agenda items: i) an action plan to implement the directives; ii) adoption of the BoI recommendations and its findings; and iii) review of the general manager and the GM’s employment contract. Given that councillors and the GM were aware of the urgency of the matter, date and time were at the discretion of the GM.

The same day, Coad said, the GM told him that, without details, she was unable to provide a report on the third item. He said he had provided those details on the same day, indicating that he was willing to remove that agenda item if the GM did not want it considered.

Items ii) and iii) of his agenda requests were removed, he said, and the GM advised that council was not compelled to adopt any other findings or recommendation of the BoI report [presumably the 48 recommendations that Gutwein ignored in issuing his list of directives].

Coad said he had advised Gutwein that he would work in a “positive and constructive” way to assist with the implementation of his directives and to ensure all councillors received “procedural fairness and natural justice in the process”. He said this should also apply to the GM. “The process also needs to be open and transparent.”

The mayor said that, because he would not be supporting the management recommendations on the agenda, he would “place before council an alternative motion and process” (see above).

Coad referred to the management recommendation, which he said, failed to recognise the root cause of the dysfunction of Council or set out a process to deal with those matters.

The mayor’s motion, falling on the deaf ears of Heart of the Huon members, didn’t have a chance, only Mackintosh and Smith supporting his attempt to enable the council to keep faith with the valley public.

FOR THE mayor to move his motion, he had to vacate his seat as chairman. So he swopped seats with Deputy Mayor Paul. When the mayor ended his comments in support of his motion, Paul invited him to retract a statement he had made. The mayor asked which statement. The one you made, said his deputy. It went on a bit, but Paul didn’t seem able to recall exactly what statement the mayor had made that he was inviting him to retract. And the mayor didn’t seem to think he had said anything out of place. Eventually Paul gave up, so the mayor didn’t have to think further about retracting whatever it was he had said that had offended the ears of the deputy mayor. (I think what it was that had irked Paul was an observation by the mayor that it was perfectly understandable that council management would protect its own position.) The “retract” invitation was a rare lighter moment in a miserable evening watching council successfully enhancing its growing reputation as a secret society.

THE MANAGEMENT recommendation that was passed soon afterwards (with Coad, Mackintosh and Smith voting against) was an amended version of the recommendation that appeared in the meeting documents made available to the public. Consequently, the public were not able to see the amended version. It had been amended as a consequence of Director of Local Government (DLG) Phillip Hoysted having arrived at council’s Huonville offices that afternoon armed with the names of mediators that he offered for council to consider.

The amended management recommendation read (inter alia):

15.024/16A* AMENDED RECOMMENDATION

That: a) The report on the Ministerial Directions dated 15 June 2015 arising from a Board of Inquiry . . . be received and noted; b) Having considered the Ministerial Directions . . . the following timetable and process is adopted:

1 In furtherance of Ministerial Direction 1(a) Council consider, in closed council, appointment of a suitably qualified person to conduct formal mediation and conflict resolution. The criteria for selection of an appropriate person is that the person must have a combination of the following:- — Experience in mediation and conflict resolution in a workplace setting; — Formal qualifications in mediation, conciliation or arbitration; — Experience in local government or a demonstrated understanding of the Local Government Act 1993; — Experience in a corporate environment in mediation and conflict resolution

2 In furtherance of Ministerial Direction 2(a) the General Manager, as soon as practicable call for expressions of interest from suitably qualified persons . . . Expressions of interest be open for . . . seven days. Council to consider the expressions received . . . and the appointment of a mediator at a Special Council Meeting. The criteria for selection . . . is that the person must have a combination of the following: [as in 1]

3 In furtherance of Ministerial Direction 2(b) the Council invite a representative from the Local Government Division of the Department of Premier and Cabinet and a representative from the LGAT [Local Government Association of Tasmania] in the first instance to present training to Councillors in accordance with the Ministerial Direction.

4 In furtherance of Ministerial Direction 1(e) the General Manager, as soon as practicable call for expressions of interest from suitably qualified persons to assist with this Direction. Expressions . . . be open for a period of seven days. Council to consider the expressions . . . and the appointment of a mediator at a Special Council Meeting.

The criteria . . . is that the person must have the following:-

— Experience in assessment of leadership competencies

— Experience in development leadership development plans

— Experience in facilitating delivery of leadership development plans

1 In furtherance of Direction 6 correspondence be sent to the Director of Local Government to determine the key performance indicators (Ministerial Direction 6(i)), which once developed will inform the process to achieve the balance of the Directions contained in Ministerial Direction 6.

c) Council authorises the release of the media release dated 5 July 2016 ‘Council acts on Ministerial Directions’ included in the attachment to this report.

MY READING — as a ratepayer — of this management-recommended motion, is that it would ensure that everything about the dysfunction of HVC is kept under wraps and, ultimately, under the control of the Local Government Division and LGAT, two organisations that, in my experience, are inadequate in managing themselves, let alone capable of arbitrating on the behaviour of what I, and many others in the Huon Valley, regard as our demonstrably dysfunctional council.

It should also be noted that, in (3) of the amended recommendation above, there is no mention of training for herself. I don’t find that surprising considering the recommendation was written under the direction of the GM, but one might reasonably think that, with so many aspects of the BoI report commenting on the performance of senior management, that she might have got the message that it was not only councillors that the report thinks are in need of mediation and training.

Why should the people of the Huon Valley — who elect the councillors who hold the sole authority to appoint and sack the general manager — have to continue to put up with this kind of authority and the secrecy in which it is wrapped?

Twice since 2009 councillors have chosen general managers, and in those years council has continued to stagger from one hiccup (if not crisis) to another. So chaotic did conditions become, the local government minister last September felt compelled to appoint his own inquiry into HVC. And yet, when that board of inquiry found what he suspected, he failed to act on its main recommendation.

It’s perfectly reasonable for ratepayers and valley residents to ask what it was that caused the minister to make a decision so foolish as to order mediation rather than to sack the council and appoint a commissioner (administrator) and sort the council out once and for all. 

WITHIN the constraints of a local government act stacked heavily in favour of an unelected management, Peter Coad, HVC’s popularly-elected mayor, is doing his best to eliminate as much of the unacceptable secrecy as possible. Not unexpectedly, attempts are being made to stymie him at every turn, I believe, by a management and a councillor power group that (1) have frozen him out of council affairs, and (2) made his capacity to do his job almost impossible since the day he first sat in the mayor’s office. A lesser people’s representative, I am sure, would have wilted long ago.

From ABC and Mercury reports on July 5, the morning after the special meeting, it appears that council did, in the closed session, delay appointment of a mediator (or facilitator as the ABC reported). So why did the general manager advise the meeting that it was necessary to go into closed council? It would have been so easy to withhold the names presented earlier in the day to council by DLG Hoysted and allow the public gallery to continue to watch their dysfunctional council debate the pros and cons.

(A note here: It turned out later that the July 4 special meeting did not end on July 4. A notice appeared later on the HVC website announcing that the meeting, while in a closed session one would think, had been adjourned. The undated notice reads:

HUON VALLEY COUNCIL

Special Meeting Adjournment

Notice is hereby given that the Special Meeting of the Huon Valley Council of Monday 4 July 2016 has been adjourned. The Special Meeting will be resumed at 12 noon on Thursday 14 July 2016, in the Council Chambers, Huonville.

The meeting will be closed to the public.

Simone Watson

General Manager

Presumably it’s all according to the way the rules are written to adjourn a meeting, but it’s a bit of a puzzle that a meeting called for July 4 can be extended to deal with events that occurred after July 4. Why was the meeting of July 4 not closed and a new meeting date set for July 14? What it does mean, of course, is that the public do not get to see a copy of the minutes of a meeting that didn’t end. I smell a rat, but that’s far too hard a line of investigation to pursue for the moment. So, back to the saga.)

WHAT is also beyond my comprehension is how Minister Gutwein could expect that a council — overwhelmingly defined as hopelessly dysfunctional by a board of inquiry that patiently examined the 80 or so submissions (fact, part-fiction and some pure rumour) for more than seven months — could be allowed to set up a structure/process that allows it to regulate and examine its own inadequacies, yet, simultaneously, dispel voters’ intensifying belief that their local government is a secret society. 

BACK to the July 4 special meeting. Mayor Coad, arguing for his motion (above), went on to say that the management recommendation failed to recognise the “root cause of the dysfunction of the council” and to establish a process to deal with it.

He said separation of the functions of mediation and leadership development for the GM and mayor could only lead to a failed outcome. “Council,” he said, “must have a process and an independent person to bring all those elements together.”

Getting to the heart of the matter, Coad said it simply was not “good governance” to have someone do the training-needs analysis and then have some different person arrange and determine the training required if they did not know the training requirements.

As the staff recommendation stood, said Coad, “management will oversee their own recommendations to council and they are part of the dysfunction as identified by the BOI report”. Therefore, it would not be an open transparent process. “Scoping” the project in that way, he said, would only lead to more dysfunction.

The mayor said his motion would deliver all the elements of the ministerial directions and “it is totally independent and gives council an opportunity to address the root causes of the dysfunction.”

His motion would ensure council could be confident that it had done its very best to comply with the ministerial directions and it “will and should leave the minister no option but to continue to support the current council”.

The staff recommendation, he argued, would put the whole process in the hands of council management, even though they were required to be involved in the process and were potentially conflicted.

Coad argued that one independent consultant should be responsible for the whole process. That way, if there were difficulties, the consultant, not the council, would be seen to have failed to deliver the outcomes the minister was seeking.

He said there was nothing in the staff recommendation that would address the minister’s direction that council’s portfolio system must be discontinued within 90 days (Direction 4) and replaced by “sufficient committees . . . to enable the efficient discharge of the council’s powers and functions” (Direction 5). The single management consultant his motion would provide, said Coad, would enable council to comply with those directions.

If the staff recommendation (15.024/16A) was adopted, said Coad, it would certainly continue the dysfunction within council because the root causes would not have been identified, let alone resolved.

He saw a successful outcome for council if it took a “professional and good governance approach” in the appointment of an independent consultant.

Coad told council that, if his motion was not supported, he would continue to participate but with the knowledge that he would be involved in a flawed process that was neither open nor transparent (my emphasis).

It was important, he said, that the community should understand that the minister had given council full responsibility to change its ways, but by adopting the management recommendation nothing could change and the dysfunction identified by the BoI would continue.

THOUGH there were brief items on the ABC and in the Mercury on Tuesday (July 5), the council’s advertisement calling for “expressions of interest” for the jobs as council’s mediators/trainers (or whatever the secret council session had decided on) did not appear in the Mercury until Thursday July 7.

The EOIs, the ad said, had to be in by 9am Monday July 11 (less than two business days from the time of the advertisement!). That sounds to me as if the only persons/organisations in a position to put up a comprehensive EOI case might be those identities whose names had been delivered to council in person by the director of local government at 3pm on July 4, the day of council’s special meeting to deal with agenda item 4: “15.024/16 Board of Inquiry Ministerial Directions”.

It is outrageous to allow less than two working days for interested parties to prepare an application to act as mediators (or whatever) with the task of bringing sweetness and light to a council comprehensively assessed as badly dysfunctional.

The mind boggles at how hard some people are striving to make sure that council remains its own judge and jury of what is good for the people of the Huon Valley, the very people who are the council’s shareholders.

As things stand, the more the Heart of the Huon team votes in approval of management recommendations re the BoI report — and against moves to consider and deal with the 48 BoI recommendations that are not covered by Gutwein’s seven directions — the more suspicious the community is likely to become about the motives of the Heart of the Huon team and the council management that it appears to back through thick and thin.

DEEP in the BoI report is a tantalising paragraph. Its contents were clearly outside of the board’s review period, so, quite correctly, it decided it could not consider them. But the paragraph is well worth reading; and it is reasonable to expect the Director of Local Government to have done (or be intending to do) something about it. Perhaps the DLG would explain what he has done or is intending to do. The relevant paragraph (on page 38 of the report) reads:

The Board was presented with a statutory declaration on another matter, whereby a former employee alleged a set of circumstances that, if proven, exhibit totally unacceptable behaviours by a senior council staff member. When questioned by the board, the senior staff member denied all allegations. No further evidence was presented to the board to substantiate the claim. As such, the board makes no finding but has advised the parties involved that the director of local government has agreed to pursue the matter should they wish.

WELL into the July 4 meeting, Mackintosh put up a motion calling for council to address the outstanding 48 recommendations of the BoI (those not covered by the minister’s directions). On this matter, he did find support in Cr Lydia Eastley (not a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the Heart voting pattern). However, with Cr James Lange absent, this resulted in a tied vote (Heart members Heron, Paul, Ruzicka and Wilson voting against Mackintosh’s motion, and Coad, Eastley, Mackintosh and Smith voting for it). Under the rules, a vote tied is a motion lost.

Yet again, the Heart team had been successful in preventing council from accepting any responsibility to deal with matters raised in 48 of the BoI’s 55 recommendations. That’s not good enough, and the Heart team should be condemned for its recalcitrance.

A DISINTERESTED observer of events since Gutwein announced his board of inquiry last September offers this view of council’s (adjourned) July 4 special meeting. He says:

The earliest of the deadlines imposed by the minister was 30 days from receipt on 15 June. They wasted 19 of those days before even having a meeting to discuss the ministerial directions. I use the word discuss loosely since there was no discussion about the report or the minister’s directions arising from it. I find that incredible — both that it took 19 days to call a meeting [from the day of issue of the minister’s directions] and that they then didn’t discuss anything of substance! My understanding is that if it had been left to the GM, there still wouldn’t have been a meeting. Presumably, the longer you leave it, the more likely to make a forced decision as July 15 approaches.

That the HotH members voted down a proposal that as far as I know simply said that the council intended to look at all the findings in the report and advise ratepayers what if any action they would take, shows a lack of interest in pursuing the report and a disregard for the people who elect them.

The highlight was Deputy Mayor Paul saying that it wouldn’t look good if the council put out an open tender for the mediator and that it would be far more transparent if they selected one of the mediators suggested by the director of local government. Paul kept a straight face while saying this.

Very disappointing that three weeks after receiving the report, the council has not officially met to discuss the contents of the report. This does not bode well for the seriousness with which the matter should be treated.

Difficult to see how the mayor and councillors can be treated fairly if the GM is in charge of the council’s response to the report.

The mayor’s suggestion to have an independent person manage the process was sound.

THIS WRITER’S view is that the behaviour of the council I pay rates to is on the nose. And we haven’t yet got around to what is the hidden agenda behind council’s Huon-D’Entrecasteaux consultation adventure (I expect a solid rejection, especially from Kingborough Council voters who live in that area); or which ex-minister is busy working behind the scenes on some new cargo-cult venture in the deeper realms of the Deep South; or how Dennis Bewsher thinks he’s got a better chance of getting permission to disfigure Surges Point and Waterloo Bay under the recently commenced new planning scheme (which is supposed to have more teeth than the old scheme to prevent the type of project he is advocating); or why council, despite good advice from the Tasmanian Planning Commission, continued to waste a month of costly staff time and legal advice failing to explain why council had the authority to deal with Bewsher’s original Waterloo Bay application; or what is going on with the privatised Geeveston Town Hall, a chain of events about which the mayor has clearly often been left in the dark (who, for instance, is the councillor replacement for ex-councillor Ken Studley on the GTH board?); or what council’s role is in extracting $70,000 from the federal government for a study of Studley’s pie-in-the-sky ‘Geeves Effect’ invasion of the southwest World Heritage Area; or whether we are going to hear any more about the scandal of the (long-identified-nothing-done-for years) broken asbestos in the Cygnet Town Hall; or whether we have heard the last about the circumstances surrounding council’s leasing arrangements for the Cygnet caravan park; or whether the full asbestos story will ever be told about the 2009 dawn bulldozer destruction of the old Franklin football clubrooms; or why it took council two years to sort out how an unapproved and illegal jetty was allowed to mysteriously appear on the Franklin riverfront and still no one has been brought to book for constructing that illegal jetty in full view of the council …

One day, I believe, this council without shame must be subjected to a serious forensic study — possibly going back to the day it was established in 1993.

Local Government Minister Peter Gutwein has the authority to order such a process. Though he might not realise it, such a decision could win a lot of support for his wobbly Liberal Party. But whether he has the courage to face down those in the Huon Valley who would oppose him is something else. A sensation that nags me constantly is that the Heart team appears to have enough support in the state political hierarchy (Liberal and Labor) to enable it to ride roughshod through the crisis that today grips Huon Valley Council. — Bob Hawkins

*Bob Hawkins has been covering Huon Valley Council for Tasmanian Times for seven years. He is a friend of Cr Smith, and an admirer of Mayor Coad for doggedly trying to bring reason to a dysfunctional council. — See more at: http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/huon-valley-guessing-games-dysfunctions-the-name-of-the-game/, http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/huon-valley-guessing-games-its-time-to-act-mr-gutwein/ and http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/huon-valley-council-read-for-yourself-/ . His work is collected HERE