Image for Why Huon Valley Council should still be sacked

*Pic: Simone Watson, Peter Gutwein and Peter Coad

Huon Valley Guessing Games

It’s struggling, yet, kinda-sorta, “dysfunctional” Huon Valley Council is still on the rails as it strives to save itself from destruction at the hands of Peter Gutwein, minister in charge of parish-pump politics. That’s the same man, who, on June 15, gave short-shrift to the expert advice of the board of inquiry he appointed last September to find out what was going on in a council displaying alarming signs of being hopelessly out of control.

Instead of accepting his board’s prime recommendations — that the council should be sacked and a commissioner appointed; that a new election not be called for at least a year; and that consideration be given to providing the Local Government Minister authority to dismiss a council’s general manager — Gutwein chose to give HVC one last chance.

The result? After weeks of hesitation, there has been an almighty flurry of activity by HVC management to find ways of making it look as if it knows what it is doing — and doing it in time.

Before a public gallery of a score of valley residents, a “special meeting” of HVC began at 5pm last Thursday (August 11). The meeting was primarily to deal with management’s progress in chronicling how council was coping in response to Gutwein’s seven deadly directions — deadly because the minister has threatened to kill off council if it doesn’t get its act together within six months.

Only seven councillors turned up, not the anticipated eight: not present were two Heart of the Huon members, Lydia Eastley (leave of absence), and Mike Wilson (who, for the second time in a row, was absent without apology).

Present were Heart of the Huon members Deputy Mayor Ian Paul and Crs Bruce Heron and Pav Ruzicka, all of whom usually back management recommendations; independent councillors Mayor Peter Coad and Liz Smith, and Greens councillor Ian Mackintosh, who usually are the opposition when a controversial issue is at stake; and new councillor James Lange (it was his third public council meeting), who, though notionally a Heart man (he was on the 2014 Heart ticket), has already demonstrated he has a mind of his own. (Signs are promising that Lange will do what any seriously independent councillor should do — consider each issue on its merits.)

General Manager Simone Watson — who had assembled a mass of documentation for the digestion (or indigestion) of councillors — looked in need of a good sleep. The work rate at HVC these days must surely be unprecedented, even when compared with the time that workaholic GM Glenn Doyle was running the show (2009-2013).

From the start, one sensed it was going to be messy — and that’s how it turned out.

Items on the agenda included “Executive Credit Cards” (15.029/16); “Council’s Governance Framework” (15.030/16); “Special Committees of Council Terms of Reference” (15.031/16); “Human Resources Unit Reporting to Council” (15.033/16); and “Implementation of Ministerial Directions” (15.035/16).

CREDIT CARDS were first up. This turned out to be a bit of a circus. Among the hundreds of statements on show, nothing seemed to be amiss. (Not that the revelation of all this data should be the end of the matter. There are those who suggest council, down the years, has had as many as eight active credit cards, and they want to see the details of all of them. Perhaps the minister should suggest that HVC should now show all.)

The main hitch on this item, however, was the recommended media release hanging off the back of about 320 pages of documentation. The trouble there was that a triumphal quote attributed to the mayor had been concocted without consultation with the mayor.

It read: “At no time has the Auditor-General suggested there has been any inappropriate use of the credit cards of the mayor and general manager. This is consistent with the council’s view. This matter can now be put to rest.”

Mayor Coad, not surprisingly, couldn’t imagine himself saying something like that. So he told the meeting he wouldn’t be approving such a release. Instead, he offered a more objective version that did not necessarily allow the matter to “be put to rest”.

How could elected representatives commit themselves to vouching that each and every credit-card transaction had been above board? Sensibly, the wisdom of the mayor’s words was appreciated, and council voted for the mayor’s version ( see http://www.huonvalley.tas.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/HVC-Media-Release-Council-credit-cards.pdf ).

Franklin council watcher Shane Johnson, who attended the August 11 meeting, commented in Tasmanian Times the next day: “The Mercury article by Loretta Lohberger [August 12] falsely claims that the Huon Valley Council ‘endorsed a report that found all credit card . . . transactions were for a purpose approved by the council’. It did no such thing. In fact, a majority of councillors voted to adopt an alternative press release that was written by the mayor, Peter Coad, that specifically excluded this comment. The councillors decided that they had not, and could not, assess each item of expenditure to determine whether each was an appropriate use of council funds ( see http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/before-it-happens-here-is-the-news-from-the-huon-/show_comments/, #15 ).

(HVC management’s tactic of trying to put words into the mayor’s mouth was at work again further down the agenda, where it was still energetically trying to impress the minister just how well it was doing in meeting the demands of his seven commandments.)

THE GOVERNANCE and special committees items didn’t cause much of a problem for councillors. These largely covered the minister’s directions that (1) council’s “portfolio” system should be abandoned (a system that has long attracted criticism, and one not suited to a group of councillors largely not qualified to cope with portfolio responsibilities); (2) all councillors be provided with information by management in a “timely manner”; and (3) that the council establishes “a general manager review committee” that meets at least once a year. That last direction, 6(c), would hardly be music to the ears of a general manager whose contract expires in 2018.

As to the abandonment of the portfolio system, it doesn’t look as if anything has much changed. Instead of having portfolio holders, council “special committees” will be chaired by “a councillor appointed by council”. This will be done by a voting system involving all councillors, whereas, in the past, the mayor (though probably not the present one) had most influence in appointing councillors to specific portfolios.

HUMAN RESOURCES in recent years has become a chronically troubled department at council. Valley talk suggests there have been as many as eight staff departures from this department in the past 15 months; and that no-one who was in HVC HR four years ago remains.

Whereas HVC’s establishment for this department is believed to be five, one source suggests it now has only one active staffer. The position of HR “co-ordinator” was recently advertised. It is not known if it has been, or is about to be, filled.

Minister Gutwein, in his Direction 6(d), has ordered council to “develop a process for reviewing and monitoring the application of all human-resource policies, plans and programs to ensure that councillors are able to perform their collective functions” under 28(2)(b) of the Local Government Act; and, in (e), “requires council to ensure senior management are providing a supportive environment for council staff to come forward with workplace issues and concerns”, this to be effected within 60 days of the ministerial direction.

Now that’s a curly one for a council with a reputation for high churn and staff that would like to leave — if only there were jobs elsewhere.

These directions resulted in a sizeable recommendation from the GM. In it, she asked that “council notes the actions being undertaken by the general manager that have been ongoing for a period of more than twelve months in relation to human resources matters including the culture change process, corporate policy projects, staff training and other initiatives that further the intent of Ministerial Direction 6(d) and (6e)”.

Part (c) of the staff recommendation to the meeting stated that the “draft reporting templates . . . be adopted for the purposes of Human Resources Unit reporting. Periodic reporting to council is to commence from September 2016 and is to include an annual statement to council to confirm policies and procedures are in place which meets the requirements” of the LG Act.

That wasn’t going far enough for Cr Liz Smith. She offered an amendment (seconded by Mackintosh) that, had it been successful, would have appointed an independent consultancy to review council’s HR policies and procedures and come up with a report, by December 1, on all human-resource policies, plans and programs. This was to be followed by the “implementation and application of all human-resource policies, plans and programs that provide for a fair and equitable treatment of employees of council”. Smith’s amendment also allowed for a “policy framework for staff to report workplace issues and council’s workplace bullying and harassment and grievance procedures” and “an assessment of council’s staff development programs and succession plans”.

GM Watson, “through you Mr Mayor”, noted that Smith’s amendment “negatises” the recommended motion. Mayor Coad ruled the amendment could stand if it included (c) from the original motion, which talked about “draft reporting templates” and stuff about “reporting to council”.

Back came the GM talking about “budget”, which sounded very much like the argument that delayed efforts months ago to get credit-card facts out into the open.

Smith argued that her amendment was valid, pointing to a “lot of movement” in the HR department; and that an “independent arbiter” was needed.

Bruce Heron came in with the claim that council had an “independent body” called “the audit panel”, of which he was a member. Muffled guffaws from the public gallery. How “independent” can a council audit panel be (no matter how honourable and ethical its members) when two members are councillors and the other pair are chosen by council’s own governance committee?

It was a close call but, as might be expected, Smith’s amendment went down 4-3 on “party lines”. So it was back to the management recommendation: it passed, with Mackintosh and Smith also voting for it.

The HR debate at HVC, should the council survive, is certain to be revisited: Huon Valley Council, I am convinced, has serious human-resources problems.

SO, ON to the seriously sensitive item on the agenda: approval of council’s first report to the minister, a document designed to convince Minister Gutwein that council is on schedule in meeting the requirements of his directions.

The GM’s recommendation, in conformance with Ministerial Direction 7, was to send council’s “Report to Department of Premier and Cabinet” to the Director of Local Government and to approve the “media release relating to the implementation of the ministerial directions”.

Two issues dominated this debate. First, Mayor Coad was probably still smarting from the story in the Mercury that day that had a strap heading, “Breaches of ministerial direction could lead to removal of Coad”, and a main head saying “Huon mayor in the gun”. To my mind, this was not a truly accurate account of the situation.

The Mercury’s argument centred around an “expected” endorsement by council of 15 breaches by the mayor of Ministerial Direction 3, which says that “beginning immediately . . . [council] ensure that all public statements made regarding council positions and decisions are first approved by the council . . . or endorsed by the mayor and the general manager”.

On page 13 of council management’s report (as presented to council) on the recommended “Report to Department of Premier & Cabinet Local Government Division IMPLEMENTATION OF MINISTERIAL DIRECTIONS 15 June 2016” is a line that reads, “Record of non-compliance with Ministerial Direction 3”. Beneath that line is a list (bluntly stated by management) of 15 instances of non-compliance with Direction 3. Who had been “non-compliant”? Mayor Coad, of course. His offences it seemed ranged across a variety of media — ABC News, the Mercury, Tasmanian Times and Cygnet Classifieds. No ifs and buts. No qualifications. He did them all. (No other councillor got a mention for speaking in a way that GM Watson might consider was in breach of Direction 3.)

Where was the evidence in the attachments that Mayor Coad had erred so much and so often? Nowhere: no audios, no cuttings. Council, one would imagine, should have its pieces of evidence. But, if the public were to want to see the evidence for the GM’s charges against the mayor, it seems they would have to track it down themselves. Not an easy task.

To me, it was clear that it would be difficult to sustain the charges against the mayor if the meaning of Direction 3 is what it seems to be. For example, one charge, for an offence in the Mercury on July 18, had no substance at all: not only could the mayor not be found saying anything; even searching eyes could not find his name anywhere in the issue.

And then there was a charge about something in the July 22 Mercury. That turned out to be a letter Geoffrey Swan had written, the Mercury choosing to place a photograph of Coad alongside it.

Coad, since the minister issued his directions on June 15, has walked a fine line. I have not yet read, or heard, him saying anything that contradicts his council’s “positions or decisions”. However, he hasn’t been as sparing in his criticism of decisions that have come from Gutwein’s office — but that’s not what the minister’s Direction 3 is about. It is Coad’s right to be able to comment on, and criticise, Gutwein’s actions should he feel he has grounds to do so.

Mayor Coad passionately defended his position at the August 11 meeting, claiming that it was “not Peter Coad, it is the position of the mayor that is under challenge here”. He said he had been defamed by the non-compliance allegations — the council report having been made public — and he was considering taking action against the council.

He said the council’s report “clearly defames the mayoral position . . . what you have got in front of you is clearly wrong . . . this sort of behaviour has got to stop. I was prepared to give it a go . . . now this has been made public, how can I pull back from it? I can’t. The situation has been made impossible for me”.

It was an uneasy audience that listened to this impassioned, yet quietly delivered, speech from a man who has put up with the better part of two years of bitter attack from certain sectors of the Huon Valley community. Maintaining his dignity at all times, he has soaked up the libel and slander that has been thrown at him. It now appears he might have reached a stage where he’s just not going to take it any more.

It wasn’t just the non-compliance charges that didn’t go down well with the councillors. Again, at the end of the attachments, page 29 of 29, was another piece of sloppy PR spin in the form of a recommended media release.

And at the end of that proposed release were more words that management had decided it would try to put into the mayor’s mouth. It wanted him to say, in reported speech, that council was “well on track to meeting all of the ministerial directions”. And then it attributed to him a mindless direct quote: “The council is absolutely committed to carrying out these directions to ensure that council continues to represent the community into the future.” Nobody with a bit of sense could utter such nonsense.

From what Mayor Coad had to say about this item, and about the earlier credit-card item, it was clear that he had not been approached by anyone from council as to whether or not he would be willing to put his name to any of the words attributed to him in either of the two recommended releases. The two releases put up on council’s website next day, August 12, varied substantially from what GM Watson had recommended ( see http://www.huonvalley.tas.gov.au/council/reports-and-publications/media-releases/ ).

Council’s final position on the ministerial-directions debate was confusing. With the help of Lange, Mayor Coad, Mackintosh and Wilson were able to vote down, 4-3, the original staff recommendation.

This decision, said GM Watson, left the council in danger of being dismissed for failing to comply with a ministerial direction.

That’s where it all became extra messy, and difficult to fathom. A second motion, which seems never to have been written down, was moved by Lange and seconded by Ruzicka. What that motion was I am not certain enough even to hazard a guess at.

It had something to do with taking out the “non-compliance” line in the proposed report to the government, and with adjusting the recommended media release so that, at least, its grovelling words were no longer attributed to the mayor. I wonder whether even James Lange knew how his motion would end up reading in the meeting minutes.

Here’s Shane Johnson’s TT take on the councillors’ treatment of the staff recommendations on Direction 3:  “Council also voted on and rejected the inclusion of alleged breaches by Mayor Coad of Ministerial Direction 3 . . . This highly reasoned and principled support of the mayor by the councillors had the potential to have serious ramifications. It forced the General Manager Simone Watson to intervene and point out that council’s vote would highlight to the minister that they had not met this direction and that this may lead to the dissolution of council. Council then adopted a different wording for the report in relation to Direction 3. But why was this in the public domain in the first place? Why were the draft press releases put into a public space when they clearly did not have the mayor’s support?” 

Johnson continues: “It is obvious to me that the inclusion of this information was done solely to isolate the mayor, to manufacture breaches of the direction and to try to force the minister’s hand to sack the mayor. The majority of councillors saw through this Machiavellian play and would have none of it.

“What also should be seen is that mediation between the mayor and general manager will not work. This was the firm view of the minister’s own highly-credentialled board of inquiry. In light of last night’s events, the article in the Mercury should be titled ‘Council supports mayor Coad’, not ‘Minister to rule on Huon Valley Council breach’.”

The wording of the motion designed to save HVC from the minister’s wrath should become clear — though perhaps not even then — when council posts the draft minutes of the August 11 meeting on its website. That should be sometime early this week. They might even be up by tomorrow (Tuesday). They weren’t there this morning.

If the GM is correct in her assertion that the minister’s demands have been met on schedule, all should be well for council’s continued existence, at least in the short term.

More of a problem at the moment is that, among boxes ticked denoting adoption of the minister’s directions are those ticks relating to Direction 1, which requires “formal mediation and conflict resolution”.

When a GM fails to liaise with the mayor when preparing a special meeting’s agenda, and fails to consult in the preparation of media releases, what hope is there that there can be a positive outcome from the mediation demanded by Gutwein between the mayor and the GM?

Very little, I believe. 

Thursday evening’s meeting, as I look back on it, summed up for me the hopelessness of the situation at HVC. There it was, thousands of words spread over hundreds of pages, and lots of boxes diligently ticked, all designed by management to persuade the minister that his directions have been taken on board and are being acted on.

In theory, that might be so. In practice, I don’t think anything is likely to change in a hurry inside this secretive, dysfunctional council. I still believe it should be sacked. — 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.

• Bob Hawkins in Comments: CORRECTION: Now you see it. Now you don’t. In my article above, I made this statement: “And then there was a charge about something in the July 22 Mercury. That turned out to be a letter Geoffrey Swan had written, the Mercury choosing to place a photograph of Coad alongside it.” That was an observation on an alleged “non-compliance” by Mayor Coad relating to a directive from Minister Gutwein (Direction 3) that the mayor should make no statements without councillors’ or the GM’s endorsement relating to council’s “positions or decisions” … My question to GM Watson is: How do the comments attributed to Mayor Coad in that July 22 11.34pm article, in any interpretation of them, add up to non-compliance with Minister Gutwein’s direction re mayoral statements and council’s “positions or decisions”? …