Image for HVC: Time for an administrator?

*Pic: Peter Coad in election mode, listing questions that seem to have deeply offended the Heart of the Huon team.

Huon Valley Guessing Games Huon Valley Council, with the cloud of a government minister-appointed board of inquiry hanging over it, will adjourn at 7pm on Wednesday evening (December 9) to conduct its annual general meeting. It will be beleaguered Peter Coad’s second AGM since returning to council, as mayor, in October 2014.

Council has little to crow about. The year under the spotlight, 2014-15, was marked by at least three huge failures — a costly (mis?)handling of the barge proposal for Surges Point, Waterloo Bay; adoption of a hopelessly strategy-less “Strategic Plan 2015-2025”; and the long-festering illegal, unapproved jetty that has adorned the Huon’s west bank in front of Franklin’s Petty Sessions Restaurant since early last year.

The jetty has been regularly used since its construction by a tourism vessel at least part-owned by council’s Heart of the Huon (HotH) team leader, Cr Mike Wilson.

Although the Surges Point barge proposal appears to be dead and buried, I’m told its protagonist now has something fairly ominous in mind for Southport.

And that strategy-less strategic plan! There’s not much one can say about something that barely imitates a document for such a purpose, except to wonder just how much the consultant employed to work on it was paid by council. I’d say too much.

On the horizon, I fear, may be another disaster-in-the-making following the incorporation of the council-owned Geeveston Town Hall Company (GTHC) to look after the future of the former Esperance Council’s HQ.

And, if the board of inquiry into the affairs of Huon Valley Council wants an illustration of council’s penchant for irrational secrecy, it need look no further than the not-for-profit GTHC.

Despite a couple of public meetings in Geeveston, at which rough descriptions were offered of what council had in mind for the town hall post-expiry this year of Forestry Tasmania’s lease on the building, secret-in-the-extreme activities appear to have been the rule among council management and a select band of councillors.

Sure, there have been council staff reports on council meeting agendas, but the nitty-gritty still appears to be held close to the chests of a few, possibly even to the exclusion of councillors in closed-council sessions.

The September agenda had an open-council item (15.031/15) in which council approved the establishment of a “Geeveston Town Hall company limited” whose constitution would provide for seven board members to be appointed, three of whom would be council representatives.

Questions I, as a ratepayer, would like answered include:

— Who is the chair person of this limited company?

— Who are the other six directors?

— How much is it costing to set up this business?

— How much is the chairman being paid?

— How much are the directors being paid?

— Are the three council representatives on the board receiving remuneration for their services as directors?

— Is the council committed to an ongoing financial contribution to the new company, or does its commitment end with the payment of the $40,000 federal grant for the project plus anything left over from the $40,000 initially allocated by council to hire a consultant to inform council of what it ought to have known anyway?

And how were the seven people for the GTHC board selected? Presumably in a secret session of council. Do they all meet the criteria laid down in council’s September 23 resolution: 1. Have experience as a board member/director, preferably including board qualifications; 2. Demonstrate sound understanding of the governance and funding of not-for-profit organisations; 3. Demonstrate a passion for, and commitment to, the Geeveston community (that criterion always makes me chuckle); 4. Have tourism and/or retail and/or visitor centre and/or business and/or financial and/or marketing experience; 5. Have experience in obtaining grant funding.

Now it’s December, and still there’s no council media release to tell us who is on the GTHC board, or how many applicants applied for the four non-council positions. (In fact, there hasn’t been a new media release on council’s website since October 16, when we were told “FREE massage for breast cancer survivors” would be available in Geeveston on October 29.)

It would only be fair to wait to see how the as yet unknown board gets on with the job of trying to turn the old Esperance HQ into a boon to the Geeveston and wider valley economy.

If a letter that appears to have been circulated (via the Huon Valley Kingborough Tourism Association) to businesses by Cr Ken Studley — who seems to think that there’s no conflict of interest in being simultaneously “Councillor for Tourism Promotion” and a director of a council-owned, not-for-profit, private company — is anything to go by, I suggest ratepayers, and taxpayers generally, should be asking council how much it’s going to cost them to keep a venture like this going.

Interestingly, as one observer pointed out, if Studley has assured tourism businesses that “there will be no charge at all this season for brochure placement”, who will cover set-up costs after exhaustion of the $40,000 believed to be coming from a federal government tourism agency and whatever dollars are left over (if any) from the $40,000 council put up to hire a consultant to come up with a plan for a plan for the GTH? The circumstances of the appointment of the consultant, I believe, also remain unknown to the general public.

Studley, in his letter, says: “Geeveston Town Hall is being reset as a Tourism Visitor Information Centre (amongst multiple other attraction tenancies) — aiming to be a Destination Attraction in its own right that acts as a drawcard for Tourists, and through the Visitor Information Centre be able to sell the Far South in particular and Huon Valley Region and be a major player in promoting Regional Dispersion. We will be up and running by the 15th of December with our own Staff and we need as many Tourism Operators as possible to drop off some Brochures to fill the stands (this centre is not Council run – it is a stand-alone business and not part of the Huonville Visitor Information Centre). There will be no charge at all this season for Brochure placement.”

These “tourism operator” jobs apparently have been advertised somewhere, but I haven’t seen the ads. And “as many Tourism Operators as possible” doesn’t make it sound as if the $40,000-and-a-bit will last long, even at Huon Valley wage rates.

The company would be designed, council’s September agenda said, to “promote an entity for the specific purpose of managing . . . the . . . use of the Geeveston Town Hall”, the use to include (but not limited to) a visitor centre, a museum, a gallery/exhibition space, a cafe and/or restaurant and an events space.

That Studley sees a “Tourism Visitor Information Centre” (TVIC) as a “Destination Attraction in its own right” is a worry. I can’t imagine anyone, as a tourist, even thinking of a TVIC as a “must see”. I’d rather be out bush, sampling the valley’s re-growth “splendour”, or trying to spot quolls and devils in the wild that haven’t yet become roadkill.

But don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that council’s venture into private corporatism — in a bid to turn around its pathetic efforts over the past decade to attract more tourists to the valley — is without merit. What Studley et al may or may not be planning — to replace Forestry Tasmania’s questionable, contradictory, now lapsed, efforts to simultaneously promote clear-felling and tourism in the Huon — could have some potential. But it’s hard to see much tourism being won by its efforts down here in the valley; and it’s even harder to imagine such a venture being viable and not having to rely on the traditional government subsidies that seem so ineradicably Tasmania’s disastrous habit.

And, as an afterthought, it is to be hoped GTHC will not be tempted to buy the now-for-sale Tahune Airwalk from a Forestry Tasmania that, if its chairman is to be believed, is on the brink of plunging back into loss after momentarily showing a book profit that relied on an imaginary upgrading of the value of assets. Where on earth will the cash-strapped do-nothing Hodgman Government dredge up the money to cover its next FT bailout?

MEANWHILE, back at the Council Chambers in Huonville, it’s been quite amazing the change of mood and behaviour at council’s “ordinary” meetings since Local Government Minister Peter Gutwein, on September 9 last, put council — management and councillors — under the microscope of a two-member “board of inquiry”. I doubt that Gutwein saw his move as a masterstroke at the time, but masterstroke it has turned out to be. Perhaps, if he made the BoI permanent, peace would reign at HVC until the next planned LG election, in October 2018! Just joking, of course.

Mostly sweetness and light prevailed at the council table at the September and October meetings, and I’m told it was much the same at the November meeting (only the second or third meeting I have missed since mid-2008). Suss body language is frequently noted by one keen observer, but, by-and-large, councillors and management, perhaps to impress the BoI, seem to have been doing their best to look as if they are part of one great happy family. Which, of course, is a load of codswallop.

I put September’s impeccable behaviour down to the phalanx of Hobart media and TV cameras in search of a story about a “dysfunctional” council.

At the October meeting it was clearly the presence of the two BoI members in the public gallery. It was surprising they didn’t stay for council’s closed session — where I have always guessed the ugly side of council is more likely to manifest itself — but it seems the BoI members weren’t invited to stay for secret council business. (One would have thought a State Government minister’s board of inquiry wouldn’t need an invitation to sit in on a secret council session.) 

Despite the apparent bonhomie, it is generally reckoned, especially around Huonville, that the daggers, though momentarily cloaked from public view, are still poised, inside and outside council, the aim being to bring about the political demise of Mayor Coad, a man who, in my opinion, has, remarkably, performed with a sense of poise, dignity, good humour and respect for others throughout a year in which he has been treated, in full view of the public gallery, with contempt by more than one member of the Heart of the Huon team

And it’s obvious that two councillors — Studley and, especially, Wilson — haven’t really stopped campaigning since the October 2014 election. Do they know something most of us out here in the political wilderness don’t? Surely they don’t think that council will be sacked, and that HotH, with an improvement on its strategy in the 2014 campaign, will be able to repossess, via a new election, both top councillor jobs. (At the moment, HotH only has the deputy mayor’s position, occupied by Cr Ian Paul, who is reported to be spending quite a lot of time at Council Chambers — doing who knows what!)

Mind you, I don’t think Heart of the Huon would re-cycle the name. Some of its members even deny it ever existed. But many observers know it certainly did at the October election last year; and the block voting pattern of HotH on vital issues since then has suggested that, even if the name has been abandoned, the bloc remains a united force when required.

Only since the BoI was appointed has there seemed to me to be more of what one might ingenuously describe as “individualism” when votes are taken. A conscious ploy to try to generally assert that HotH does not exist? Or a tactic to make the BoI think it doesn’t?

But there has been no mistaking the block’s reality over the past year when it has come to the critical decisions — like who should be on the Audit Panel; and who on the Governance Committee; and whether or not council should approve of an issue being referred to the Audit Panel.

Can’t say that “all will be revealed soon”, because it never is with Huon Valley Council. Secrets, even when bits of them seep out, are rarely fully revealed. My observations, and information I have received down the years, have led me to believe that Huon Valley Council has been a virtual secret society since it formed in 1993, and the only way to put an end to this situation — if that is what the voters want — is for the BoI to recommend to Gutwein that he appoints an administrator, and gives that person a couple of years to do a total forensics of the whole of council’s operations. My usual pessimism prevails.

*Bob Hawkins is a Huon Valley ratepayer and an advocate for transparency in all democratic institutions. It is no secret that he is a supporter of Mayor Coad, who he believes to be too honest for his own good.

• Trish Kyne in Comments: The hype surrounding the Geeveston Town Hall when it was known Forestry was pulling out, was that it was necessary to have a drawcard up and running immediately so Geeveston wouldn’t die. $80,000 later and the consultants are the only ones better off. It’s the same old story of closed shops, lack of vision and conflicts of interest. There is no real understanding of the things that keep tourists coming back and enjoying their holiday time. It certainly won’t be the Geeveston Town Hall.