Image for Huon Valley Guessing Games: Double vanishing act down in the Huon

Two largely unremarked vanishing acts provided elements of intrigue at Huon Valley Council’s ordinary meeting last month (August 26). Each reinforced my impression that, not surprisingly, something strange is going on inside the bastion of secrecy that is council’s Huonville headquarters. More on these later.

AN agenda item that might have been informative, possibly even entertaining, was an address by Dr John Reid. A retired Cygnet scientist, he argues that human influence on climate-change is virtually non-existent — maybe only 1% of nature’s total contribution to what he sees as a global cyclical phenomenon.

Instead, councillors, staff and a public gallery numbering around 25 were treated to a rambling delivery. In Reid’s own words, “the belief that mankind is wrecking the planet by burning fossil fuels is a wonderful rallying cry for idealists needing a noble cause, but it has no scientific basis”. And, he asserted, “science” nowadays is more a case of “environmental advocacy”.

Reid was at the August 26 meeting as a consequence of Cr Mike Wilson’s call a while back for someone to present the “other side” of the climate-change debate following a practical delivery to council in April by Jon Doole, Kingborough Council’s environmental services manager, on his council’s “climate-change adaptation policy”. It seems that, while Kingborough is taking no chances about climate change, Huon Valley has turned to a climate-change denier to validate its lack of action.

In his characteristically diplomatic way, Mayor Peter Coad, after saying that what he had heard bore no resemblance to what he had expected, thanked Dr Reid for his contribution. A gentle smattering of applause came from councillors and staff, but no hand-clapping from the 25-strong public gallery reached my ears. (Reid’s views can be found at his website — http://blackjay.net.)

OTHER issues of significance on the August 26 agenda included a motion to approve a subdivision at Grove that has the potential to leave Bullock Hill — steep and heavily timbered land and subject to slippage that fronts the Huon Highway and Turn Creek Road — virtually denuded within a few years.

With the new Huon Valley Planning Scheme — to replace council’s three old planning schemes (Port Cygnet, Huon and Esperance) — about to become operational, the Bullock Hill subdivision application (SUB-7/2015) had all the hallmarks of a last-minute move to dump, in Cr Rosalie Woodruff’s words, an “urban suburb” (28 lots ranging from 1 hectare to 5.36ha) into a rural landscape. On several observers’ reading, the Bullock Hill subdivision is something that would not be allowable under the new planning scheme.

One would think that, with “environmental living” being the Bullock Hill zoning under the new scheme, and with the minimum block size set at 6ha, council’s staff report on the issue would have pointed this out to councillors. But nowhere in the report could I find even a mention of the new planning scheme. (In previous “planning” reports to councillors, the imminence of the new municipality-wide scheme becoming operational has sometimes been deemed worthy of mention.) 

Real estate salesman Cr Ken Studley remained in the council chamber for the Bullock Hill item, contributed to the debate, and then voted in favour of the recommendation for approval. This was in contrast to the practice of one-time real estate salesman Robert Armstrong, now MLC. Throughout his brief career as a real estate salesman, Armstrong, when he was chairman of the “council acting as a planning authority”, under “declaration of interest” rules, would leave the chamber.

Some might posit that, by sitting in on, and voting for, the Bullock Hill application, Studley might find it somewhat embarrassing should the real estate agency of which he is a director and sales team leader end up with the contract to market that particular subdivision. Studley, by the way, at the August 26 meeting darkly hirsute about the jowls, no longer resembled his image (as of September 3) on HVC’s website or that of the company he works for.

Bearing in mind the potential for soil erosion and land slippage, one observer of the Bullock Hill debate afterwards opined: “Councillors voting for that development should have to pay personal restitution for whatever befalls the eventual residents on the estate.”

Watching the Bullock Hill subdivision being waved through by the Heart of the Huon (HotH) team had me thinking of the time, not so long back, when northern Queenslanders went berserk with their chainsaws and bulldozers after learning a crackdown on land-clearing was imminent.

NOW, back to those disappearing acts.

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1. Franklin’s ‘Petty Sessions Jetty’: Cr Liz Smith lodged a “notice of motion” for the August 26 agenda relating to the illegal and unapproved jetty on the west bank of the Huon River in front of Franklin’s Petty Sessions restaurant.

Smith explains how her motion disappeared from public view in her latest monthly My Council News (MCN), a summary of council business she distributes to members of the community who have asked her to help them keep abreast of council activities. Her motion read:

That, in the interests of good governance and transparency, the council engages an independent consultant to prepare a comprehensive report for council and the Audit Panel that addresses all governance and planning issues relating to the construction of the jetty on the Huon River east of the Petty Sessions Restaurant, to include details and all documentation of i) the construction and planning processes for the jetty; ii) the permit application process for the jetty after it was constructed; iii) all correspondence regarding the project, including notes on phone conversations; iv) any prior knowledge by council staff of the geographic limits of the Huon Planning Scheme on works proposed below the high water mark; and v) the potential exposure of Council to liability through allowing commercial use of the jetty while having knowledge that it was constructed without approval.

In her newsletter, Smith writes: “I was advised by the General Manager that this motion, asking for a report to council, would be put on the ‘closed council’ section of the agenda. The jetty topic has not previously been on the agenda in closed council.”

What can council watchers read into this perplexing decision by the General Manager? My suspicious mind ponders that council has something to hide on this obviously very touchy issue. Surely it should be possible for an open-council debate, with all participants carefully avoiding areas that might impinge on closed-council stuff. Surely the valley’s increasingly curious public should be allowed some idea about what it is that has resulted in this fiasco dragging on for more than 18 months. 

The ‘Petty Sessions Jetty’, which has figured frequently on Tasmanian Times — see: here; here; here; and here) — somehow symbolises a problem that Peter Coad referred to in a letter to the Huon Valley News on July 1, when he said: “With regret, I report that I believe that council is fast becoming dysfunctional.”

Today, it’s surely reasonable to ask how council has managed to make such a total cock-up of something that should have been nipped in the bud when it was observed way back in early 2014 that a substantial jetty was being constructed near the Petty Sessions restaurant? Any senior council officer, or councillor for that matter, would have known that no permit had been issued for its construction, from any organisation, let alone from council. That’s when the work should have been stopped.

That council didn’t act because it might have thought it couldn’t issue a permit for a jetty doesn’t stand up, because at that time early last year it still thought it could. Long, long after the Franklin jetty was complete, and being used by (now former deputy mayor and former acting mayor) Cr Mike Wilson’s Franklin Eco Cruises’ vessel, council still was under labouring under the impression it had jurisdiction to hear an application for the construction of a much larger jetty at Waterloo Bay. It took a ruling by the Tasmanian Planning Commission (TPC) in late June this year to disabuse council of the belief that it had jurisdiction to rule on jetty applications.

Though closed-council decisions often are not revealed to the public, one senses that the way council dealt with Smith’s ‘Petty Sessions Jetty’ motion is not one that council will be able to keep under wraps forever. My bet is that the closed council vote on August 26 went along the usual lines — 6-3 against. I could be wrong. Perhaps 5-4 against, but unlikely

Still unresolved is the exact ownership of the unapproved and illegal ‘Petty Sessions Jetty’. For a start, can an illegal and unapproved construction have an owner? It’s not a bad structure, and could be a useful aid for river tourist traffic, especially if Petty Sessions agrees to forfeit the approval it won from council last year for an even bigger pontoon/jetty adjacent to the illegal one. Or is that another jetty project that council approved without knowing that it didn’t have the jurisdiction to do so.

The mind boggles at the tangle of issues that lie ahead before resolution to the question of exactly who can approve or reject an application for a jetty. Which poses another question: how many of the multitude of jetties around the state are legal in light of the TPC ruling in June?   

2. Southwest National Park Mayor Coad’s “notice of motion”, which appeared in the open section of the agenda, was one that would have been met with mixed emotions in the community. Some would see it as advocating destructive trespass on environmentally sacred ground; others as too timid a step towards racheting up the economic potential of the state’s southwest wilderness.

For the moment, Coad’s idea is going nowhere, because he announced, with the August 26 meeting only moments old, that, having received an email from GM Watson, he felt he had no option but to withdraw his motion.

Here is the wording of the Coad motion that was disappeared, presumably on management advice, from the August 26 agenda:

13.010/15:
a) that the Huon Valley Council supports the development of an eco-tourism infrastructure, road development and access plan for the Southwest National Park;
b) that a project brief for the development of the plan be facilitated by the Huon Valley Council with the assistance of invited national universities to determine the scope of the project proposal and costings to undertake the project, to develop and implement the eco-tourism infrastructure, road development and access plan for the Southwest National Park;
c) that the Huon Valley Council seeks the support of the Commonwealth and State Governments to secure funding to enable the plan to be developed and implemented using building information technology and its processes for the plan’s development;
d) that world’s best practice be used in developing the plan to ensure the recognition of the environmental sensitivities of the Southwest National Park.

What was it in the GM’s email that caused Mayor Coad to withdraw his motion, a motion that embodied an aspect of the political platform on which he campaigned last year to become mayor? It was an aspect of his platform that could well have cost him the votes of valley residents who might otherwise have supported a candidate promising to get the valley back on track after years of economic torpor and directionless performance. It was a motion that might even have found favour with anti-green elements in the ranks of the controlling HotH team, some perhaps wishing they’d thought of it first. Mind you, two words in the motion — “environmental sensitivities” — would not have gone down too well in HotH heads. 

Whatever it was, at least we now know what Mayor Coad has in mind if only he can achieve his stated vision of bringing the splintered council together in the best interests of the valley and its people.

To my mind, that’s a long way off, although council meetings these days are so much more interesting. Some HotH members are actually contributing to debate, something that rarely happened in the bad old days under the domination of the variously named Armstrong team. But, clearly, there are strong undercurrents, and, it is increasingly evident, there are things that council would much prefer to keep hidden from public view.

A council that tracks so much of its agenda into “closed” session, and which delegates so much authority to an unelected management, cannot help but appear in the people’s eyes not to be healthy, or willing to communicate information about its activities to the public. But, as long as an apathetic public out there doesn’t seem to give a damn that things are the way they are, why should anyone ever hope that council’s performance will improve.