FOR the sake of ratepayers and residents, it is to be hoped that the Huon Valley Council’s “recruitment panel” (comprising five councillors) will have most of the following considerations in mind when it meets to decide on a shortlist of applicants for the vacant general manager position.

Panel members should be considering:

— THE NEED to lift the veil of secrecy that for far too long has shrouded council issues that demand no secrecy at all. At present, council secrecy extends far beyond reasonable considerations of “private personal” and “commercial in confidence”.

— THE NEED for council to take away from the new general manager all the authority that is now delegated to the position she/he will occupy. It appears that councillors have relinquished so much authority over the years that they have divested themselves of most of the powers their elected status allows them. Future delegation of responsibilities to the council’s chief executive should be made only after careful consideration. For example, creation of council policy should be a hands-on task of the people’s elected representatives, not of a public servant, whose role should be limited to that of adviser.

— THE NEED for the council to plan seriously for the long term rather than rely on a form of adhockery that leaves residents bereft of a sense of vision for their valley. Despite legal requirements, the council has not yet approved a strategic plan to replace the one that expired in 2007. And the council should have a well-thought-out annual plan rather than something that appears to be cobbled together at the last minute each year and then largely ignored.

— THE URGENT NEED for those who manage the council’s cash assets to ensure they invest conservatively and short-term. Recent facts unearthed — by a small group of ratepayers who last year started probing the council’s financial statements over several years — suggest there has been, at best, unwise investment of council cash. So far, losses look to be approaching $4 million as a consequence of investing long-term in speculative products. There are those who believe other information of interest has yet to surface.

In the months after the losses came into public view, there seemed to be a dawning on councillors (previously seeming largely ignorant about investments the council had made) that a “finance committee” would be advisable to keep an eye on public monies available for investment. In March, the Huon Valley Finance and Risk Management Committee was established. But there is to be no transparency: the new committee, under the terms of the Local government Act, is a “special” one, so its deliberations are secret.

— THE NEED for council to come out into the open by replacing its “workshop” system, which seems to function without detailed record, with a “council committee” process, the meetings of which by law would be open to the public except when private-personal or commercial-in-confidence matters were on the agenda.

— THE NEED for a council that is willing to put its name and emblem on its vehicle fleet and mobile equipment. Has anyone in recent years seen a vehicle that has the words “Huon Valley Council” on it? Why does this public entity not label the vehicles it has on the roads? Perhaps there is a plausible reason. One does not come to mind.

— THE NEED for the council to “communicate and consult” openly with the public instead of spinning its way through the years by talking about doing both these things yet — at almost every twist and turn — withholding for as long as possible information that would help the public understand what the council is doing.

The Cygnet George Street land development project is a case in point. It was only after council had spent, presumably, thousands of dollars on professional services for a “plan” for the redevelopment of “Old School Farm” that it started talking about community consultation — and only then after pressure had started to build from locals wanting a say in a project of great significance to the future of the town’s development.

Councils, especially when considering big projects, should consult first and design later rather than spend money in the dark and present communities with plans that tend to allow only a tweaking at the edges.

— THE NEED for a council that knows how to treat its ratepayers and residents with respect when (in fear of ridicule or contempt) they stand before council to ask a question. The behaviour of the council during “public question time” in the past year has at times been quite confronting. Some members of the public describe it as verging on bullying, certainly rude. “What’s the question?” the mayor will brusquely interject when a member of the public is trying to put their question into context.

A ratepayer, in a recent letter to the mayor, made specific mention of the conduct of question time. The letter says, inter alia: “Public question time is an embarrassment for the public . . . what we usually see is that, at best, answers are as brief and uninformative as possible. Frequently the question is not answered . . . It is a confrontational exercise rather than an information-sharing opportunity . . . The situation is a disgrace and requires a complete overhaul if the public’s faith is to be restored.”

Later in his letter, the writer states: “I was appalled at the manner in which the last AGM was conducted and am in correspondence with the local government department in an attempt to ensure this year’s meeting is more meaningful to the public.” The letter to the mayor also observes: “All of this is happening on your watch with the shadow of a $4 million investment loss hovering in the background . . . It is time you and your councillors took responsibility for what happens within your council.”

CLEARLY there is a desperate need for a transfusion of new blood into the management of the Huon Valley Council. The council’s need for a new general manager presents it with a great opportunity to hire that new blood. It will be no easy task to sweep away a heavy culture of secrecy that leaves the public in ignorance even on some of the most mundane and un-secret of council activities.

So secret has been the council’s search for a new general manager that — unless something has changed since the July 8 meeting — not even those on the recruitment panel know whether they will get to see the names, positions and qualifications of all those who have applied for the job (the deadline for applications was July 10).

One person who seems certain to have access to all information is Brent Armstrong, until last October general manager of Hobart City Council, now chair of the Local Government Board and a life member of Local Government Managers Australia. Mr Armstrong has been hired as the council’s consultant for the GM-selection process.

The appointment of Mr Armstrong was first mentioned in a May 18 council release but his identity was not then revealed. The same release also gave no indication as to whether the consultant was a person, a professional recruitment agency or something else.

Tasmanian Times, in ‘Huon Valley Guessing Games (4)’, posted on May 26, said it was only reasonable for the public to know the identity of the consultant. On May 29, a council media release identified Mr Armstrong as the consultant.

It is reasonable to deduce that this appointment was confirmed at a closed session of council on May 13, the bare-bones agenda supplied to the public informing us that a closed session would deal with the “process for the appointment of general manager”. Presumably that was when councillors were told of the person they would be asked to confirm as the GM-process consultant.

Mr Armstrong was hired, according to the May 29 release, to “assist council in drafting the position description and selection criteria”.
He would also be “providing advice . . . on applicants but he will take no part in the final decision”.

Mr Armstrong — who has spent 35 years in local government in Tasmania — must have his finger securely on the pulse of the local government industry and the people in it, so, therefore, is well equipped and positioned to judge the merits or otherwise of those vying to become the council’s next general manager.

What has not been explained is why the council, ideally through the mayor, has not publicly declared that the recruitment panel will be allowed to know, in the strictest confidence of course, the names, positions and CVs of all those who have applied to be considered for the job of GM.

The council’s secretiveness has attracted much more than usual criticism this year. Its furtive dawn demolition (with police in attendance) of the iconic Franklin football clubrooms in February provoked a torrent of public anger and frustration: at the council’s failure to communicate; and at its lack of appreciation of architecture that symbolises the region’s heritage (the council once wanted to demolish the Franklin Palace but, thankfully, was talked out of such vandalism). More recently, some staff have been privately communicating their concerns about the way council operates.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if those that so tightly control the affairs of the council would, just for once, show a little trust in the people they serve by allowing them easier access to the detail of issues that demand no confidentiality on either private-personal or commercial-in-confidence grounds? For example, why shouldn’t we, the public, be told whether the five-councillor recruitment panel will be made privy to the identities and qualifications of ALL those who want to become Huon Valley Council’s next general manager?

By doing so, they would demonstrate to all residents of the valley that their council — which, reasonably, they should be able to expect to act whenever possible in the community’s best interests — is not doing anything untoward. Until they do, suspicion and distrust will continue to fester.