Image for HVC’s $54,000 BoI defence is still under wraps

Huon Valley Guessing Games

If the “dysfunctional” council down here in the Huon wishes to win back electorate respect it may once have enjoyed, it should, at Wednesday’s (August 31) ordinary meeting, unanimously vote to debate in “open council” an issue its general manager has decided should be heard in “closed council”.

General Manager Simone Watson is relying on Local Government (General) Regulations 2015 15 (2)(g), (2)(i) and (9) to justify her decision. The issue relates to a petition received by council at its July 27 ordinary meeting. That petition simply asks HVC “to release in full to the public the responses of Huon Valley Council to Local Government Minister Peter Gutwein’s Board of Inquiry’s March and May 2016 reports”.

(Meanwhile, another petition is in circulation re Huon Valley Council. This one asks Local Government Minister Peter Gutwein to implement Recommendations 1 and 2 of his Board of Inquiry’s report into HVC: dismiss the councillors and appoint a commissioner; and not call a new election for a minimum of 12 months.

Despite the notorious Huon Valley fear factor, nearly 250 people had put their names to it by Monday. You can find the petition at: https://www.change.org/p/implement-the-major-recommendations-of-the-huon-valley-board-of-inquiry?tk=hC4Nlp5AGKD-WuzqV1QYmkrJX91Tb8G6IwT_4tfjDn8&utm_source=petition_update&utm_medium=email.)

NOW, back to those Local Government (General) Regulations that the GM cites as reasons not to debate in open session the petition received by council on July 27.

This is what the regulations say:

15 (2)(g): “Information of a personal and confidential nature or information provided to the council on the condition it is kept confidential.”

15 (2)(i): “Matters relating to actual or possible litigation taken, or to be taken, by or involving the council or an employee of council.”

15 (9): Subject to the Right to Information Act 2009, and discussions, decisions, reports or documents relating to a closed council or council committee, after considering privacy and confidentiality issues, authorises their release to the public.”

OK, so there may be a lot of red tape surrounding those two council responses, which one would imagine were almost entirely based on legal advice supplied to council by prominent Hobart law firm Page Seager, at a cost of about $54,000. The final BoI report — which, presumably, was a modified version of the May report — was handed to Gutwein on June 3.

Gutwein released that final BoI report (possibly “redacted” here and there) to the public on June 15. On the same day, he also released his responses to the inquiry, and gave HVC, under threat of sacking, seven “directions” to fulfil. Our dysfunctional council (that’s how the BoI’s final report describes it) continues to grapple with the minister’s directions.

The directions appear to be based more on council’s two responses (to the BoI’s two interim reports) rather than on the BoI’s final report. It is intriguing that a few days’ or weeks’ work by experienced lawyers appear to have carried more weight with the minister than seven months of diligent expert inquiry by two long-experienced public servants who certainly knew what they’re were doing.

The BoI’s first finding is:

F1. The current unworkable relationship between the mayor and the general manager, between the mayor and certain councillors and between certain councillors is highly irregular and renders the council dysfunctional.

The BoI final report’s three main recommendations are:

R1. Pursuant to section 226(1)(b) of the Act, the Minister should recommend that the Governor by order dismiss the councillors and appoint a commissioner under section 231 of the Act to perform the functions of the council.

R2. A new election is not called for a minimum period of 12 months.

R3. The question of whether the Minister should have the power to dismiss a council’s general manager should be referred to the review of the Local Government Act 1993.

Almost no one outside of council knows what was in the council’s lawyer-backed responses to the BoI. But, presumably, they would have rejected any notion of dysfunctionality. And it might be imagined that some of those that feature in the council’s responses would be reluctant for them to be made public. 

Whatever has been happening behind the scenes, the minister finally (and presumably on qualified advice from his staff) opted to allow the good people of the Huon Valley to continue to be administered by a council that his board of inquiry had declared dysfunctional.

From what the public saw at the last two council meetings, there was nothing to suggest that the minister’s “mediation” solution has any hope of succeeding.

IN THE meantime, let’s forget about the niceties of such things as principles and democracy, and turn to the harsh reality of what the people of the valley have so far got for their money — $54,000, which may or may not eventually be paid by some sort of insurance policy the council has.

A lot of us aren’t impressed. For a start, we weren’t told council began paying big bucks months ago in its now clearly failed attempt to refute the findings of the BoI final report. We certainly didn’t know that council’s “not guilty” argument was costing upward of $54,000. And that’s a bill, I suspect, that could still be climbing.

When 70 valley residents asked council in a petition to release its responses to the BoI report, two councillors — Deputy Mayor Ian Paul and Pav Ruzicka — voted against council even accepting their petition. Fortunately for the petitioners, five councillors voted for it to be accepted.

As is normal, once a petition is “received”, HVC management has to prepare a report on it for presentation to the next ordinary meeting. But will the petition report be discussed in open council this Wednesday? It certainly won’t be if the item is left on the closed-council part of the agenda.

So, for the moment, we have no idea of what our $54,000 was spent on — that is, of course, apart from one council friend, Mick Newell of 7HOFM, who conveniently got a copy, in his “letterbox”, of the first of HVC’s responses. Presumably that was delivered to him by someone in council; or by someone who had been given it by someone in council; or, possibly, by someone at State Government level.

What is certain is that, if Huon Valley’s councillors don’t vote to bring the petition debate back into open council on Wednesday evening, we will continue to be kept in the dark by a council that sadly has earned itself a wide reputation for secretiveness.

As I recall, somewhere in the BoI report is a plea for council to be more open in its dealings with the people that own it.

In the case of the justifications for putting the petition issue into closed council, it must be asked whether we are watching a council management simply doing its job by following the rules to the letter.

If that’s the case, the matter is easily fixed. Barring unexpected absences, there will be eight councillors in the council chamber on Wednesday evening (Lydia Eastley is on leave of absence). They are all grown-ups, experienced in coping with the vicissitudes of life; they are all, we might reasonably assume, people with minds of their own and capable of thinking for themselves.

All that is needed is for enough councillors (five) to decide that we, the people, should be able to hear — in open-council debate — their views on whether or not they believe it is reasonable for the people they represent to know what is in the reports that their money has been spent on.

Local Government (General) Regulations aside, the councillors should know how to conduct a sensitive debate (on the merits, or not, of releasing those council responses) without ever trespassing on the forbidden areas of “personal and confidential”, “possible litigation”, closed-meeting confidentiality etc, to which the regulations refer.

At least three of the eight councillors, I am sure, can be relied upon to support a move to bring the issue out of closed council — Mayor Peter Coad and Crs Ian Mackintosh and Liz Smith, each of whom has publicly said they want those council responses to the BoI reports out there in the public arena.

And two other councillors are on record as having suggested council’s responses should be released.

— Some months back, when someone was arguing that the BoI findings should be released, Cr Wilson insisted that, if that should happen, “other reports” should also be out there. What else could he have been referring to except council’s costly legal responses to what Wilson probably thought were undesirable BoI findings about a council of which he has long wanted to be mayor? It is to be hoped he still feels that way?

— And Cr Bruce Heron got a ruler across his knuckles from the GM for musing at an open council meeting that he couldn’t see why council’s responses should not be released. He might even have been suggesting that councillors had already agreed that they should be released. The GM moved quickly — “Through you, Mr Mayor” — to silence Heron. That was “closed council” business, he was warned, and, therefore, not to be mentioned. (Mayor Coad on another occasion was chided by the GM for venturing into “closed council” territory in his remarks.)

How the relatively new councillor, James Lange, would vote is moot. He came on the scene some time after management decided to, expensively, defend itself against the BoI. But he has indicated signs of supporting an open and accessible council. One can only hope.

Surely someone on Wednesday will move for the petition issue to be brought out into open council. If that happens, Heron and Wilson should reasonably be expected to put their votes where there mouths once were — which would be just enough to ensure an adult, open-council discussion on the merits of a people’s petition. (For a motion to pass, it must have a majority — a 4-4 vote would mean a lost motion.)

AT THE August 12 “special meeting” of council, a management report accused the Mayor of having been, 15 times, “non-compliant” with Gutwein’s Direction 3, relating to the Mayor as council’s spokesman. Fortunately, good sense prevailed and that sentence in the management report was struck out.

But the very fact that the charges of non-compliance were made (with no evidence to support them being available for public appraisal) resulted in the Mayor telling council, and the public gallery, that his position had become impossible.

It could have been read into Coad’s remarks that the farcical mediation process that Gutwein has inflicted on council — on both general manager and councillors — was likely to be about to end. But no information of that nature has come from council since, so it may be assumed that mediation, as an inept attempt to halt HVC internecine warfare, plods on.

AT THE JULY 27 ordinary meeting of HVC, Coad had questions for Mike Wilson. With Wilson, the Mayor’s most hostile opponent since the October 2014 election, not being there to answer them, those questions are back on the agenda (see Questions on Notice http://www.huonvalley.tas.gov.au/council/meetings/ August 31 ordinary council meeting agenda).

The questions challenge Wilson to explain how he had been thanked in a letter from lawyer David Wallace of Wallace Wilkinson & Webster “for your instructions to attend the council meeting on Wednesday 26 August 2015”.

Not unreasonably, Coad, who was Mayor at that time, is obviously intrigued to know how a down-table councillor had been given permission to offer to a lawyer “instructions”, presumably on council’s behalf. Coad’s questions do suggest that, as Mayor, he had no idea Wilson might have been acting as a council envoy. Surely not another case of council dysfunctionality!

Wilson’s answers on Wednesday evening will be of great interest. In the spirit of co-operation Minister Gutwein has appealed for, he might even offer an assurance that, from now on, he will be more conciliatory in his attitude towards the valley’s elected leader.

ANOTHER item of interest on this Wednesday’s agenda is a question from Smith relating to heritage-listed buildings in Cygnet’s Burtons Reserve. It seems “concept drawings” are being developed by council for a new toilet block, including temporary showers at folk-festival time.

Smith wants to know why the project was not on the July 14 agenda of council’s Burtons Reserve Management Advisory Committee; and whether the folk-festival committee has been consulted.

Surely we’re not witnessing yet another example of a council management oblivious to the advantages of consulting with the public before drawing up concept plans, rather than presenting them in a fait accompli, take-it-or-leave-it, flourish. The latter course has become the norm since council, under the leadership of Robert Armstrong (now MLC), abandoned any attempt at serious community consultation some years ago. The Burtons Reserve issue appears to be yet another example of council dysfunctionality, but that’s another story for later consideration.

THERE’S A Waterloo — “Here we come again!” — moment in council’s papers this week. In the almost unopenable “attachments” on the HVC website (under Agenda and Minutes), there is mention of a Planning Scheme Amendment, and a Development Application — for a “wharf, jetty and access road” at Surges Bay — lodged by a company by the name of Telopea.

Isn’t Telopea Pty Ltd the company of Dennis Bewsher, the man whose application, a couple of years back, to impose a huge barge operation at Surges Point ended in failure; and cost HVC huge, unnecessary, amounts of money as its management spent weeks, maybe months, trying to justify (unsuccessfully) why that application should succeed?

I wonder if Mr Bewsher is still considering using huge barges (which council then did not have the authority to adjudicate on, and now knows for sure that it hasn’t) and a double-handling system for export cargoes — from land-to-barge and then from barge-to-seagoing vessel.

FOR THE MOMENT, however, back to Wednesday’s meeting. Let us hope Huon Valley Council gets real and allows the people to know what $54,000 of their money has been spent on to acquire information that is so secret the buyers (us, the public) are still not allowed to set eyes on. — Bob Hawkins

*Bob Hawkins has been covering Huon Valley Council for Tasmanian Times since early 2009. He is a friend of Cr Smith, and an admirer of Mayor Coad for doggedly trying to bring reason to a dysfunctional council.

• Ed: Mr Bewsher, as is Ms Watson, are always welcome to put their side of the story ...

• Bob Hawkins in Comments: HVC hugely dysfunctional again last night (Wednesday). Re the petition item placed in “closed” council by management: it stayed there, the eight-councillor meeting splitting 4-4 on a “procedural motion” (no debate) by Mackintosh to bring it into open council. (There was very strange behaviour by one councillor on this vote — too difficult to explain in a few words. Maybe in a later article.) Having been kept in closed council, one can only assume that, if the council’s responses to the BoI are not released, the petition was thrown out. That $54,000 is looking, to this ratepayer, more like questionable us of the public purse …

Geoffrey Swan in Comments: As a interested Ratepayer attending Council yet again this week, I am left in do doubt we have before us what the BOI has aptly described as a Dysfunctional Council. Simple Definition of dysfunction: “the condition of having poor and unhealthy behaviours and attitudes within a group of people”. I attempted to contact Director Local Government Mr Phillip Hoysted yesterday only to be advised he has taken early retirement and former Deputy Greg Brown is now acting in that role. Here’s hoping the Acting DLG will see the farcical situation for what it truly is and convince Minister Gutwein to move sooner rather than later. After all..  this is our Ratepayers’ money being wasted on all matter of things at this time. Why should our Community have to put up with this charade any longer ...