Mayor Robert Armstrong just doesn’t seem to get it. When council voted on August 11 to have the big black peppermint tree on Cygnet’s Mary Street subdivision removed, more than 700 people – most of them local residents – signed a petition for a public meeting to be held that would call for that decision to be reversed. Not bad for a township of only about 1000 people, including children.

Armstrong was one of the six Huon Valley councillors (all members of the Huon Valley Team) who voted for the tree to be removed. (One HVT member, Mike Wilson, voted with Greens councillors Liz Smith and Rosalie Woodruff for it to be retained.)

Yet, now that the council is fulfilling its obligation under section 59 of the Local Government Act to stage that meeting, the mayor will be in the chair. It is a situation suggestive of conflict of interest and perceived bias.

The decision to remove the eucalypt was controversial when it was taken in August. It is even more controversial today because the tree has since been murdered by a person (or persons) unknown: it has been so thoroughly ringbarked, no amount of arborist TLC can save it, and already its branches hang with the limpness of a life drawing its last breaths.

The question that now has to be asked is, how can a central player in a controversy that has divided the Cygnet township simultaneously be the chairman of a meeting designed to resolve the controversy and an advocate for the trees destruction? That the tree is now beyond help is beside the point.

The mayor, rather than controlling the meeting, should, just like the rest of us, be sitting out there in front of an independent chairperson.

And there is a second question. None of the nine councillors who voted on the fate of the tree can be regarded as independent because they were either for or against its removal.

So who should be in the chair? This is a problem council should resolve before the meeting, set for next Tuesday (December 7, 6pm, in Cygnet Town Hall). If it doesnt, it will be incumbent on the mayor, when he opens the meeting, to explain how he has rationalised away his apparent conflict of interest in the controversy.

Perhaps he will argue that, with the tree now either dead or dying, its future is no longer in the hands of either council or community and, therefore, the public meeting should be a formality. The rules council has laid down for the meeting are clearly designed to restrict it to being a pretty tame and brief affair.

In its media release, displaying perhaps a hint of uneasiness that things could still get out of hand, council states:

• To allow the meeting to proceed in an orderly manner (my italics), the following rules will apply to the meeting:
• A motion must be moved and seconded.
• The person moving a motion may speak for no more than two minutes.
• All other persons may speak for no more than two minutes.
• The person moving the motion has a right of reply of up to one minute and may not introduce any new information in exercising that right.
• Procedural motions may only be made at the discretion of the chairperson, who must consider whether all those who wish to have an opportunity to speak have had that opportunity.
• The chairperson is to determine the vote by a show of hands.
• A person may move a motion to amend a motion if that person has not moved or seconded the original motion.

Talk about guided democracy!

The council media release is an insult to the intelligence and decency of the 700-plus signatories who, because they care about Cygnet and how it looks, dared express their opinions via a petition that met all the requirements of Section 59 of the act.

The council release implicitly suggests that the meeting, if not controlled with a despotic firmness, might not be orderly. Who does the council think it is talking to? We are not badly behaved children. We are, on the whole, a mild-mannered lot that lets heaps of bad local government go through to the keeper, usually noting it with nothing more than an, Ah well, what can we do about it?

Perhaps not many of those 700-plus signatories will turn up to voice their dissent. After all, the tree is dead and nothing much can be done about the fact that the Mary Street subdivision at present is a hideous eyesore for those approaching Cygnet on the Channel Highway from the south.

By dint of councils ineptitude and lack of foresight, yet another aspect of the charm of the unique character of Cygnet has been tragically damaged. But were used to that in the Huon Valley. Time and again, council has failed to recognise the priceless intrinsic economic value of so many built and natural historic features of the valley many of which no longer exist to be appreciated or to help pull in the tourist dollar.

May Tuesdays petition meeting be orderly and productive. That would give the mayor, if he is still the chairman, a chance, just for once, to put himself in the hands of the forever un-disorderly people of Cygnet and allow them to freely and respectfully express themselves, even if it does take them a bit longer than two minutes to get their points across.

Bob Hawkins is a Huon Valley ratepayer and an advocate for transparency in all democratic institutions. He is not a member of a political organisation.