Image for Huon Valley Guessing Games: The Plot Thickens


THE PLOT thickens down in the Huon. Mayor Peter Coad has intriguing questions to ask of Cr Mike Wilson at Wednesday evening’s (July 27) Huon Valley Council meeting at the Huonville Council Chambers. And Cr Liz Smith has a question that challenges Heart of the Huon councillors to explain why they voted down the mayor’s proposal for an independent consultant to manage Local Government Minister Peter Gutwein’s directions to HVC, including the mediation he has ordered councillors and the general manager to undergo. (See: HERE.)

Before pondering what might be behind the questions, here in full are the Coad and Smith questions on notice:

Coad to Wilson

The following questions relate to a letter to you from David Wallace of Wallace Wilkinson and Webster dated 25 August 2015, referring to your invitation to them to attend a council meeting on 26 August 2015. My questions are:

•  Did you instruct Wallace Wilkinson and Webster on behalf of council or on your own behalf?

•  If you instructed Wallace Wilkinson and Webster on behalf of council, what was the nature of council’s instruction?

• Specifically, did you instruct them to assist council and/or the general manager in relation to the dispute between the mayor and the general manager?

• Were any council funds paid to Wallace Wilkinson and Webster or is any money payable to Wallace Wilkinson and Webster for legal services rendered in 2015, and, if so, do they relate to this matter?

• If you purported to be instructing Wallace Wilkinson and Webster on behalf of council, what was the source of your authority to do so?

• Was the general manager in any way involved in the engagement of Wallace Wilkinson and Webster?

• If the general manager gave you authority to instruct Wallace Wilkinson and Webster on council’s behalf, please identify the delegation of council to the general manager (including the date) that allowed her to delegate authority to engage external lawyers to individual councillors such as yourself.

• Under Section 65 of the [Local Government] Act [1993], the general manager is responsible for ensuring that advice given to the council is given by a person who has the necessary qualifications. This is not the role of an individual councillor. On what authority or basis, did you act in inviting David Wallace to attend the closed meeting of council to give advice?

Smith’s question:

Would each councillor who voted against the proposal by the mayor at the June 22, 2015, council meeting, that council immediately calls for expressions of interest for an independent management consultant to manage the implementation of the Ministerial Directions on behalf of council and arrange and manage the implementation of the mediation required by the Ministerial Directions and that included suggested terms of reference, role of the governance committee, timetable for the consultancy, skills and experience in the area and the extension of time from 30 days to 45 days by the Minister for implementation of Ministerial Direction 1(a), please provide a written summary of the reasons why they decided not to support the motion?

FIRST, to Coad’s questions. Not surprisingly, after reading the questions, I sought a bit of specialist advice, Then I found myself delving back through the HVC website for the minutes of council’s August 26 meeting, the one referred to in the August 25, 2015, letter (reproduced above) that Wilson received from David Wallace of Wallace Wilkinson & Webster, Hobart barristers and solicitors.

I might have missed the clues that add light to the mayor’s questions, but more experienced eyes at the other end of the country perused the minutes from beginning to end. It was on the second last of the 172-page minutes that the really interesting info was found.

At the opening of the minutes, I could not find a reference to anyone other than councillors and management being in attendance, but on the second last page is this line:

Mr Collinson and Mr Wallace left the meeting at 10.00pm.

I’m not certain which Mr Collinson that might have been but I do know that a Rod Collinson is listed as a partner of the law firm Page Seager. This Hobart firm has since become apparent as a player of significance that, is, if you get much for $54,000, a figure in HVC legal fees revealed earlier this year by General Manager Simone Watson in council’s resistance to the critical findings of Gutwein’s board of inquiry (BoI), which decided HVC was, in fact, dysfunctional and beyond mediation.

It is reasonable to assume the Mr Wallace mentioned is the David Wallace who signed the WW&W letter above. What role WW&W may have played for council in the year since has not come to my notice. (Perhaps a TT reader may be able to help.)

The next note on that second-last page of the August 2015 minutes, just after it was resolved that the meeting now be open to the public as at 10.01pm, reads thus:

The Mayor and General Manager returned to meeting at 10.02pm. Mayor Coad resumed the Chair at 10.02pm.

[For the record, there were no apologies at the August 2015 meeting. All councillors were present.]

WE’LL leave Mike Wilson to answer the mayor’s questions. His responses to each should help clear the air as to whether he is just a downtable councillor assuming authority that is not his to assume, or whether he has been privileged with authority not normally delegated to a simple councillor.

That Messrs Collinson and Wallace attended a closed session of HVC last August, and the fact that Mayor Coad and GM Watson returned at 10.02pm, appears to be confirm that, in fact, the closed session had been discussing, as the WW&W letter indicates, Huon Valley Council advice re complaint/dispute Mayor & General Manager.

By August last year it had become an open secret that the GM and the mayor were not getting along? But was there more to it than just the Mayor-GM dispute? Maybe council had also got wind that Minister Gutwein was on the brink of ordering an inquiry as he did the next month. Management especially would have been interested in preparing a legal position for such an event.

Can’t help indulging in a bit of guessing when we have a council in the Huon that, as the consequent BoI was to discover, is in the habit of dealing with far too many matters in closed council rather than debating them in full view of residents of the valley who would like to know what council’s management and elected representatives get up to.

Most intriguing of all is just how Wilson came to be involved in inviting a lawyer to a closed council meeting. Surely such an action is strictly operational, and, therefore, none of any councillor’s business. That the GM was a central figure in the reason for the lawyers’ presence should not have been a problem, the GM surely having the authority to delegate such a matter to one of her senior managers. And, if the job had to fall to a councillor, why should that authority be given to the one councillor who had clearly declared himself an arch-political enemy of the then still fairly new mayor?

Somehow, I doubt that all will come clear when Wilson answers the mayor’s questions on Wednesday.

FAST FORWARD to late July 2015, and we’re now a month or so into the six-month period Minister Gutwein gave council to get its house in order and undergo healing mediation among councillors and the general manager. Not much constructive progress is apparent to public eyes.

Gutwein, many believe foolishly, allowed one of the principal combatants in the council imbroglio (GM Watson) to be in charge of the implementation of his ultimatum to council to shape up within six months or be sacked holus-bolus and an administrator imposed. An administrator would, presumably, have all the authority that councillors hold, which includes appointing and terminating a GM. (As I understand the Act, apart from exceptional circumstances, no-one can sack the mayor except the people; and no-one can do the same to a GM except the councillors.)

This is where Smith’s question on notice comes in. At this month’s special meeting of council (July 4), Mayor Coad offered what one writer has described as a lifebuoy to councillors that would shore up Gutwein’s leaky scheme and make mediation among everyone a viable proposition.

Coad’s lifebuoy is what Smith is referring to in her question: the mayor’s proposal that . . . council immediately calls for expressions of interest for an independent management consultant to manage the implementation of the Ministerial Directions on behalf of council and arrange and manage the implementation of the mediation required by the Ministerial Directions . . .

What could be simpler: forget all about compiling your own in-house lists, and advertise, nationwide if necessary, for expressions of interest from consultants that all sides in the dispute could regard as totally independent?

No way, was the intimated response of Heart councillors. We’ll choose the mediator we want. Down went the mayor’s motion. And so it happened: a mediator was appointed from among names put up by management (including it seems suggestions from the about-to-retire Director of Local Government Phillip Hoysted).

Predictably, Coad, as a major combatant, didn’t respond well to being told that he would be mediated by a consultant selected from a list (into which he had no input) compiled on the recommendation of his main adversary. (See: HERE)

I don’t rate Smith’s chances of getting written replies from all - even any - of the Heart councillors who put the kybosh on the mayor’s proposal. But at least her question provides electors with an insight into the way their elected councillors are thinking; and it allows them to judge whether the councillors are up to the task of bringing, in a fair manner, the council into a shape that would persuade Minister Gutwein that the dysfunctional Huon Valley Council was at last looking as if it was getting its act together.

UNFORTUNATELY, Gutwein, who I once regarded as the brightest of a largely lack-lustre Hodgman Cabinet, seems to have lost his stomach for a stoush with a council that one senses has lots of influential friends in high and other useful places.

Talking tough at last week’s (July 20) Local Government Association of Tasmania conflab, Gutwein delivered a stern rebuke to councillors that he described as at war among themselves. As usual, Gutwein didn’t allude to problems involving management. Pointedly, he said councillors should not resort to publicly airing their arguments in the media. (When I vote in an election, it is in the hope that, should my candidates be successful, they would be only too happy to exercise their right to free speech and let the world know their opinions on every issue. Surely the minister isn’t advocating restrictions on free speech? Or trying to gag our democratically elected representatives?)

Gutwein’s observations amount to fresh evidence of how out of touch he and his Local Government Division are with reality; and how out of touch with the concept of democracy are the big parties generally. Specifically, Gutwein is ignoring the need for him and the Local Government Division to keep in the loop the people that his Local Government Division is charged with serving.

I don’t know what’s going on at the also troubled Glenorchy Council, but I do know that here, in the Huon Valley, popularly elected Mayor Coad came to his job with a promise to do his best to preside over open and transparent local government (which can only be achieved through good governance); and to encourage promotion of initiatives that would contribute to reviving the valley economy.

From my observations, from his first day, Coad was met by a huge cold shoulder from both senior council management and the so-called Heart of the Huon councillor group, in those days usually voting as a block of six.

The solidarity of Heart seems to have become less sure since it won six of the nine seats on council. A couple of months back, local real estate salesman and Heart member Ken Studley resigned suddenly. Heart members Lydia Eastley and Bruce Heron have occasionally broken ranks and do not seem to be as committed to the group as its hard-core members Deputy Mayor Ian Paul and Crs Pav Ruzicka and Wilson. Cr James Lange, a Heart candidate who failed to get a quota in the October 2014 election, is now on council in place of Studley. He has attended only one open meeting of council - in June - at which he made a lively and useful contribution to debate. There is talk that his ties with Heart may be a lot looser today.

The Heart message has been fairly consistent: The mayor must go. The group, particularly Wilson, has put a lot of effort into promoting a sense in the community that everything that goes wrong at council is largely the mayor’s fault; and that he is the stumbling block that prevents council running smoothly ‘as it always did’ when the late Greg Norris and Robert Armstrong, now-MLC, were the mayors.

Ben Lohberger, HVC’s former PR man and in that job for some months after Coad was elected, is still sniping away at the mayor who seems to have been unimpressed by the tone of the media releases he was expected to put his name to (see HERE).

Never a mention is made that, through the Armstrong years, council’s rickety wagon rode roughshod through disaster after disaster. I’ve listed often enough those disasters not to list them again. Suffice to say, for years, Huon Valley Council has performed like some sort of lethargic secret society; and, year after year, misgivings about its performance have intensified among valley residents.

Rumours, even if ill-founded, remain rife about rorts, jobs-for-the-boys, favours-for-mates, fear and loathing among staff, job churn . . .

This writer has experienced a substantial increase in contacts from ex-council staffers who, as long as they are promised their identities will not be revealed, are prepared to recount alarming tales. Some of this is reflected in the BoI report.

But getting people to identify themselves and stick their heads over the ramparts is something else. The fear factor - though I believe it to be groundless - persists, and I doubt much will change that aspect of a valley tradition that is afflicted by the doff-your-cap-and-curtsey and mind-your-own-business attitude that might well have its origins in a culture that developed from the first arrival on the island of colonial thugs brutally in charge of criminal minds. 

IN 2014, when Coad returned to HVC as a councillor and mayor after a decade away from the council table (he was HVC’s first deputy mayor in 1993), he sounded like a man who believed he could do good things for a council desperately in need of reputational refurbishment.

He still does, even though the trials of the past 20 months must have been sapping for a man in his advanced sixties. Nevertheless, he appears determined - much to the irritation of Mike Wilson, the rumour mill asserts - to soldier on. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that Minister Gutwein having made a mess of interpreting the BoI findings and recommendations is running out of patience with a man who remains committed to bringing good governance to Tasmania’s southernmost council.

Oddly, despite the special form of turmoil that has enveloped HVC since November 2014, Coad has achieved much. In some ways, what was hitherto kept hidden has surfaced in surprising ways. And, despite the efforts of management to protect its Local Government Act-empowered authority, and a minister who appears to be arguing that democracy is not a public right, there is growing hope abroad in the valley that better days lie ahead.

At Wednesday’s meeting, council is expected to be presented with a residents’ petition asking for the reports council management submitted in its attempt to refute the BoI findings to be made public. Those two reports, on the GM’s admission, cost around $54,000 of public money in legal fees. Surely that’s a big enough price for the hoi polloi to pay to be allowed to see what sort of gobbledegook was concocted by council to counter the findings of the BoI resulting from about seven months of careful study by its two experienced and meticulous members. - Bob Hawkins

*Bob Hawkins has been covering Huon Valley Council for Tasmanian Times for seven years. He is a friend of Cr Smith, and an admirer of Mayor Coad for doggedly trying to bring reason to a dysfunctional council. His work is collected HERE.

• Mark Temby in Comments: It might just be the big goldfish in a small pond syndrome through Tasmania but I will note Jim Wilkinson, “Independent” MLC for Nelson, is listed as a consultant to Wallace, Wilkinson and Webster. I still reckon there are closet meetings in Parliament House between the likes of Armstrong, Harriss, Gutwein and, maybe, Wilkinson (all pro forestry good ol’ boys)