Image for Peter Gutwein, do your duty for the Huon ...

*Peter Gutwein, from his website

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Peter Coad

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Adriana Taylor

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Simone Watson

Huon Valley Guessing Games So far, so good: Huon Valley Council’s nine elected members have been sacked by Local Government Minister Peter Gutwein; and General Manager Simone Watson has been disposed of by Commissioner Adriana Taylor.

They were the easy bits of what needs to be done to get local government in the Huon onto the rails. Each person had the authority to do what they did. Gutwein dilly-dallied for more than a year on the way to his councillor-sacking decision; but Taylor took less than a month to decide that Watson had to go.

Now, with the decks mostly cleared — HVC’s management structure requires close scrutiny — it is to be hoped that Gutwein will set in process the much more difficult task of getting to the bottom of why HVC has been such a dysfunctional failure since long before independent Peter Coad horrified council’s controlling Heart of the Huon team, in 2014, by beating its leader to the mayor’s job.

It shouldn’t be too hard for Gutwein to pull out the stops and get on with the job, but, Tasmanian politics being what it is, the great attraction must be to plump for the time-honed dust-under-the-carpet option.

Commissioner Taylor — former mayor of Glenorchy Council and, until earlier this year, a member of the Tasmanian Legislative Council — has made it patently clear that her riding instructions do not require her to look backwards. Her job, she says, it to restore community confidence in their local government — and for her, that means “looking forward”.

Sadly, she does not have the authority (perhaps she doesn’t want it) to take one action that would go a long way towards restoring the confidence for which she is striving. That action would be to seriously investigate the many allegations concerning HVC that Gutwein’s Board of Inquiry received when it began, just over a year ago, to find out why the council was dysfunctional. Taylor is firm: those complaints have no part in her brief from Gutwein.

What she has achieved in the first six weeks of her tenure is admirable, and I’m tempted to withdraw my “benign dictatorship” thought line ( http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/huon-councils-benign-dictatorship-cant-solve-its-serious-problems/show_comments/ ). However, I still believe the headline on that article was justified: her job as commissioner, constrained as it is by Gutwein’s instructions, is not to look under the carpet.

She told ABC Local Radio last week: “My job is really to make the council functional again, I suppose, but it’s also to restore community confidence in the council.” And, pointedly: “It’s not for me to make a judgment on who’s right and who’s wrong. That’s not what I’m here for.”

Determined to be seen to be “looking forward”, she told The Mercury that she had terminated Watson “for the good of the community”, and that “the community needs a clean start, and Simone needs a clean start”. Enigmatic perhaps best describes these comments.

None of this augurs well for anything but more of what Tasmania has been known for since it was settled more than a couple of centuries ago: turning its back on the past and “moving on”.

Taylor can hardly be blamed for not wanting to go near any of the stuff that many ratepayers and residents of the Huon believe is worthy of close analysis.

LET’S START with the departure of the GM. Mercury Online blared “sacked” on November 15, but soon that word was nowhere to be seen. There’s no doubt, however, Taylor had become convinced that Watson had to go. It would have helped if she had come up with something more specific than for the “good of the community”. What on earth does that mean? What might the “bad for the community” have been had Watson been allowed to stay?

Whatever the real grounds for her departure, the general manager has left the Huonville council offices with about $180,000 in her hand. (“Executive Manager Corporate Services” Wayne Thorpe appears to be this week’s “Acting General Manager”.)

Whoever it is that is running council’s “operations”, no one seems to be answering its mail. Several people wrote to council before the November 14 “special meeting”, at which Taylor officially decided Watson was finished, asking why the meeting had no published agenda. I wrote to HVC: “Council is advertising a Special Meeting of Council for Monday November 14, 2016. Would you please inform me of the Agenda topics?” I had not received a reply (or even acknowledgement of my email) by November 21

On November 16, I searched HVC’s website, in vain, for an announcement about Watson’s removal: nothing under “Media Releases”. I wrote to council asking why there was no release confirming, or explaining why, the GM had departed.

As of November 21, there was still no release explaining the departure of the GM, and I had yet to receive an acknowledgment of receipt of my inquiry, let alone an answer.

THERE ARE, however, signs that council management is no longer suffering a spell of catatonia. One sign of life is that — for the first time in more than two months — there are new releases on the HVC website (all dated November 17). One is particularly interesting, and a sensible move ( http://www.huonvalley.tas.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/HVC-Media-Release-Cygnet-Medical-Services.pdf ).

It calls for expressions of interest in leasing council’s Cygnet Medical Services building. Taylor has decided that this council-owned facility, built with federal funding and often dogged by administrative hiccups, is to be offered for privatisation. I doubt the centre has ever turned a dollar’s profit. More likely it has been a fairly hefty drain on council’s finances.

Before November 17, HVC appears to have done nothing it felt was worth telling the public about since September 2, the date of the previous media release. And that release —  http://www.huonvalley.tas.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/HVC-Media-Release-BOI-petition-1.pdf — was yet another example of how incommunicative and secretive HVC has long been.

The release related to a petition asking for HVC’s submissions to the Board of Inquiry — including the Page Seager lawyers’ report — to be made public.

Despite Cr Liz Smith’s attempt to have the petition issue debated in open council at its August 31 meeting, the Heart of the Huon majority voted that it should remain exactly where GM Watson, for reasons hard to fathom, had decided — in closed council.

Though we are unlikely ever to see the minutes of that closed session, it is obvious that council voted to ignore the public’s request to be informed of the contents of documents ( presumably designed to counter the Board of Inquiry’s findings and make People’s Mayor Coad the fall guy for HVC’s hopelessness ) that cost us, the taxpayers, more than $54,000.

NOW BACK to last week. On ABC Local Radio on November 16, Taylor said: “My job is really to make the council functional again, I suppose, but it’s also to restore community confidence in the council.”

“Functional again”? Though council’s correspondence system doesn’t appear to be functioning, as I have said, there are signs that it’s getting some of its act together.

And that bit about “community confidence”? And answers that go on about “the good of the community”? All of these expressions are only going to leave more confusion than confidence in a community that’s still being kept in the dark.

This ratepayer wants to know exactly why Watson’s continuing presence in her job would not have been good for us. Though I believed it wasn’t doing me, or any of the valley’s other 15,000 residents, much good, I’d really like to be told by someone in the know exactly why that was so.

We don’t have Watson’s side of the story, but we do know that Taylor told the ABC’s Leon Compton that Watson hadn’t been thinking of leaving. Indeed, Taylor went to great lengths to stress that it wasn’t a sacking.

Compton: “Why did you dismiss the general manager?”

Taylor: “Umm, I didn’t dismiss the general manager. Let’s get this language . . . changed. I didn’t dismiss the general manager and I didn’t sack the general manager. What I did was I invoked a clause in the general manager’s contract that said I could terminate the contract — or council, not I — council could terminate the contract without reason, without cause, with 12 months’ notice. That’s what I’ve done. That’s very different from dismissing. If I had dismissed the general manager then there would be far different conditions and result, I think.”

Her decision on Watson, she said, had been to restore community confidence. The community had taken sides, and, with the councillors dismissed, some had been asking why the GM hadn’t also gone. Taylor said it wasn’t for her to make a judgment as to “who’s right and who is wrong”.

Compton: “Did the general manager want to leave her role?”

Taylor: “Ahh, no, well, I don’t think she had considered that. I think the general manager was genuinely trying very hard to work with me to restore community confidence and to continue to get the council back on track so to speak. So, no, it was my decision. Having said that, I think that it is — once I’d made the decision and we had the discussion — after that decision had been made, I think the general manager realised that it is a good opportunity for her to have a fresh start as well, because this has taken its toll on everybody in this community, including the general manager.”

Taylor said the decision that had been made was the “only choice I really had”. The only other option, she said, was for the general manager to continue to work her contract out for the next two years. And Taylor “just couldn’t see how I could, within a short time, restore community confidence in the council while that dispute within the community was still going on”.

That’s an argument with merit, but it’s not going to wash with everyone.

Compton: “While there was tension within the council — this was before the Government placed them in administration — Peter Coad, the former Mayor, was perpetually at loggerheads with the GM. It was happening for months before the council was dismissed. Many people in the community were trying to paint it as his problem. In fact, it was only in Parliament a number of months ago Peter Gutwein was saying what would fix the problem is if Peter Coad quit. Isn’t your dismissal of the general manager, or the decision for her to leave on your say-so, a vindication of his position?

Taylor: “I don’t think so at all. There will be people who are seeing it that way, I am sure. I don’t think this is a criticism if you like of, or an opinion on, what went wrong or what the disputes were. This is really about — my job is to look to the future, my job is to see that community confidence is restored in the council and that the council moves ahead and starts moving again, restoring business community confidence in the council. This is not about the past, this is about the future. That’s the best way, in my considered opinion, that this is the best way to actually start with a fresh sheet, I suppose, and say, well, you know, ‘Where do we go from here?’ There’s too much baggage. This is not a criticism of the general manager, or of the mayor, or of their disputes. This is about getting back on track . . .”

Though she lapsed into platitudes and cliche towards the end of her ABC interview — “looking forward”, “moves ahead”, “starts moving again”, “fresh sheet” — there’s no doubt that Commissioner Adriana Taylor is a breath of fresh air blowing through the valley. I haven’t heard a bad word about her, and she has been busy lending her ear to all around the valley and, by appointment, in her office. One might even imagine she’s earning her $180,000 salary.

Which has me wondering what the mostly publicly mute former HVC mayor Robert Armstrong had on his mind last week when, on the ABC and obviously hot under the collar, he called for her sacking.

Was he grumbling because he was sensing that the sadly flawed council he left behind him when he headed off to Tasmania’s parliamentary rest home for former mayors — the Legislative Council — was about to be reconstructed; or was he concerned that forensic drilling into HVC’s labyrinthine files could be imminent? Should that happen, who knows what sort of “dysfunction” might be exposed?

Armstrong (sounding very much like ex-councillor Mike Wilson, eternally but always unsuccessful mayoral aspirant and a strong Watson supporter) was peddling a simplistic formula for getting things back on track: the commissioner should be sacked; an acting general manager should be appointed; elections should be held; and, as in the way when he was mayor, the councillors should elect a general manager of their choosing.

Armstrong clearly doesn’t like the prospect of an outsider, in the form of Commissioner Taylor, being in charge of the appointment of a new GM — an authority she has in her role as the embodiment of nine councillors. God forbid! If it’s left to Taylor, she might even end up employing a well-qualified, seriously experienced, blow-in council CEO!

Those in the valley who believe that council’s procedures for the appointment of its past two GMs were flawed, are hoping that, when the next substantive GM moves in, the selection process not only will have been fair but will be seen to have been fair.

AS MUCH as many of us would like to see Taylor dig into the nitty-gritty of council’s files, it seems her riding instructions do not include the authority to pry into the council’s past.

But there are things she can do that would help persuade the public that a degree of even-handedness is at work.

For example, if a general manager can be removed for not doing anything wrong and pick up a year’s salary and entitlements of around $180,000, why shouldn’t the nine sacked councillors be treated the same way?

Sure, they proved to be a dysfunctional lot, but none of them to my knowledge has yet been found to have done any actual wrongdoing. And some of the ex-councillors worked their butts off to try to achieve good governance.

So, why not also pay them each a year’s salary plus entitlements? I doubt councillors have legal contracts, but they should certainly be entitled to reasonable redundancy terms. (By the way, I’m told one ex-councillor was seen the other day working with a council gang. Can’t confirm that one.)

AND WHAT about the huge legal bill People’s Mayor Peter Coad is facing. It’s a bill he ran up in the interests of (1) trying to fix council governance practices he perceived as, at best, less than adequate; and (2) to defend himself and his reputation as an experienced longtime senior public servant against abuse and unsubstantiated allegations from those who could not bring themselves to treat with respect a mayor who happened not to be always in agreement with them.

Many of us out here in the community have come to believe that, for example, while council doesn’t have a spare $80,000 to install a lift for the aged and infirm to Cygnet Town Hall’s Supper Room, it did find $80,000 to spend on an unwanted elevated section of boardwalk on the way to Cygnet’s sailing club; $54,000 on a legal report designed to dodge responsibility for management inadequacies identified by the Gutwein Board of Inquiry; thousands of dollars defending the indefensible — such as a wild scheme to put super-barges on the Huon at Waterloo Bay, and to manage to prevaricate for two years on a decision about an illegal, unapproved jetty at Franklin that just happened to be used for commercial purposes by a sitting councillor; and a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year on an under-utilised, questionably efficient, mechanised street-sweeper . . .

And what about a council lease that demands only an annual rental of one dollar and makes ratepayers pay the $1600 tax on the land on which the private business is operating?

And what about a council that blew $4 million in an investment gamble about 10 years ago yet prefers to “look forward”, “move on”, and forget that, properly invested, that $4 million today, even invested in low-interest fixed deposits, would have been worth probably $10 million? And, anyway, what was council doing with an idle $4 million sloshing around? And who got the commissions on the lost investment? All these questions, among others, need answers before it will be reasonable for the council to “move on”.

There are some things of a practical nature that Commissioner Taylor could do. For example, still unresolved is how, and by whom, was a copy of the “secret” Page Seager report leaked to 7HOFM. That was a leak that was clearly in the interests of those determined to do their utmost to put People’s Mayor Coad in a bad light. And, more recently, who — with the same objective — was it that leaked a copy of the same report to The Mercury?

Neither recipient of this “secret” document published very much that was in it. But both incidents were clearly designed to tarnish the image of a mayor whose only sin seems to have been to work to improve council’s governance, transparency and general openness with the community.

Read by itself, the Page Seager report, I believe, would reflect poorly on Peter Coad. Read in tandem with the findings and recommendations of the BoI report, it would make clear to discerning readers just how the Page Seager report turned on their heads a lot of the BoI findings, the intention being to make the mayor look like the villain of the piece.

I have always been convinced that Coad, when he moved into his job as mayor in November 2014, found a situation that — based on his three decades of experience at public service boardroom level — convinced him fairly quickly that good governance was not an HVC strong suit.

NOW TO allegations that can’t be specified because, uninvestigated and unproved, those who make them could put themselves in line for writs.

All of these allegations, I would imagine, must by now be with Minister Gutwein and the Local Government Division. So, if Gutwein will not direct his HVC commissioner to look backward and start wading through the files and questioning present and former council staff, it is his duty (if he is not already doing it) to direct his officers to get to work considering the allegations — by analysing them themselves or handing them on to the appropriate authorities.

A few subject headings: Asbestos. Entrapment. Leasing. Jetty. Bullying. Compliance. Credit cards. Appointments . . .

And questions such as the following I believe are worthy of consideration by Gutwein’s office. Will it:

— Investigate the circumstances that resulted in a council management report asserting, in papers made available to the public, that Mayor Peter Coad was guilty of 15 instances of non-compliance with Gutwein’s June 15 Ministerial Direction 3 to HVC?

— Investigate the circumstances that resulted in an alleged delay of several years between HVC being informed about broken asbestos in the Cygnet Town Hall and council’s dealing with it?

— Inquire what role, if any, a councillor had in the appearance, without permit, of a jetty on the Huon, which then continued to operate for about two years in an “illegal and unapproved” (the words of HVC executive Matthew Grimsey) state?

— Investigate the circumstances in which a camping ground was leased, on two occasions, to a family that has/or had friendly ties with a councillor, and, on one of those occasions, to a sitting councillor?

— Confirm or deny that a matter relating to HVC has been referred to the Tasmanian DPP?

— Inquire why the mayor was virtually isolated from negotiations that led to the privatisation of the management of the Geeveston Town Hall?

— Investigate events surrounding a bridge at Dover?

IF THERE is no serious examination of the many complaints that have been registered relating to Huon Valley Council, one can only conclude that a serious process of sweeping everything under the carpet is in process. — Bob Hawkins

*Bob Hawkins has been covering Huon Valley Council for Tasmanian Times since early 2009. He is a long-time friend of former councillor Liz Smith, and an admirer of People’s Mayor Coad for doggedly trying to bring reason to a dysfunctional council.

• Reg Maxwell in Comments: I agree with most of what Bob says and I definitely agree that someone must act on the BoI recommendations which cost we ratepayers a lot of our scarce money; if it is not to be done by the Commissioner then Minister Gutwein please tell us whom you intend to get on to it and how soon it will be done. This is an important matter that will continue to fester for years unless it is cleaned up in a transparent manner, so don’t leave it to be dealt with by our next elected Council members. Next, the selection of a replacement for Watson. This must be a completely transparent process so it ought to be done by one of the several Executive Recruitment firms with broad experience in the selection of Local Authority executives …

• Bob Hawkins in Comments: #9 John, none of us out here in ratepayer land have any idea of the quality of the PS report because it’s still “secret”. It’s been seen only by those few who, by law, must see it — and, of course, conveniently leaked to those whose knowledge of it (7HOFM and The Mercury) was likely to help the cause of those who wanted the dysfunction blamed entirely on the People’s Mayor. The PS report might be, for all I know, a brilliant piece of legal sleight of hand that made council management and the Heart of the Huon only too happy to hand over $54,000 of taxpayers’ money to promote their cause rather than that of what I regard as the few who make up the forces for good governance.