First published December 11
Huon Valley Guessing Games
It was respectful. It was diplomatic. But it certainly was a dressing down that Huon Valley Council commissioner Adriana Taylor handed former councillor and sometime deputy mayor Mike Wilson at HVC’s November 29 meeting.
Wilson, in a November 28 Mercury article, ‘Taylor’s plan spurs questions’, was critical of Taylor as a result of a Mercury article, published November 27, headed, ‘Taylor-made solution’ with a strapline ‘Huon Valley Commissioner seeks suitable candidates’.
In the November 28 story, Wilson is quoted thus: “It is not the role of the commissioner to state she will identify potential council candidates and encourage them to stand at the next election.” In the same article, it is reported that he said he had written to Premier Will Hodgman and Local Government Minister Peter Gutwein “regarding the [Taylor’s] comments”.
On the basis of the November 27 article, Wilson’s remarks might be viewed as reasonable. But the commissioner didn’t see it that way, arguing that the November 27 article had not accurately reflected the sentiments she had expressed in her interview with the Mercury. (The article also didn’t reflect this writer’s understanding of what the commissioner, for many months, has had in mind about helping potential candidates to understand their responsibilities.)
What Wilson is believed to have said in a media release that Huon News received from him prior to the November 29 council meeting also displeased Taylor. What got her dander up were three observations attributed to Wilson: it seems he had criticised Taylor’s role regarding candidates for next year’s LG elections, and described her as a caretaker; had complained that the general manager at the time of council’s sacking need not have been terminated; and alleged that HVC had “five new ex-Glenorchy Council staff who do not reside in the Huon”.
BEFORE getting around to ticking off Wilson, Commissioner Taylor dealt with the November 27 Mercury article. She said at the November 29 council meeting: “There was an article in the Mercury . . . which was an interview . . . which has been misread and misunderstood by some members of the public. Clarification has been issued of the language used in the article and my role as commissioner and how I see the public being involved in elections next year and potential candidates . . . A media release has been issued today to this effect.”
Inter alia, the November 29 release, ‘Preparing for Huon Valley’s future’, reads:
The Huon Valley Council commissioner, Adriana Taylor, is encouraging potential candidates to prepare for the council elections next October. [She said:] “I will be organising open workshops for any and all candidates . . . These workshops will be open to anyone wanting to learn more about local government but will be aimed particularly at those nominating . . . I have indicated to the minister that it is very important that the community has enough time to get to know and prepare any prospective councillors. I am already encouraging our communities to identify community leaders to consider standing and for those who know the good leaders to support them to do so . . . it is important for residents to get to know as many candidates as they can so they can make an informed decision . . . Councillors need to represent the views, wishes and concerns of the community. I look forward to contributing to this process.”
Nothing much wrong with any of that, though there is perhaps a hint that our politicians today would much prefer us all to accept their “guided democracy” rather than unfettered democracy. But it is nothing that former councillor Wilson should have a problem with.
ADRIANA TAYLOR took over from the sacked nine valley councillors in October 2016 and chaired her first meeting the following month (November 30). Wilson, one of the nine removed councillors, attended that meeting. To my knowledge he did not attend another council meeting until last month (November 29).
At that meeting, Taylor said she was pleased Wilson was present to hear her reaction to his assertions. She bluntly reminded him that her authority as commissioner was no less than that of an elected council: there certainly was no “caretaker” element to her job.
A modified version of her statement at council, issued the following morning, does not contain Taylor’s initial observations about Wilson’s apparent criticism. Inter alia, that statement reads:
Local government is a public service industry that requires specific skills in such areas as planning, health regulations . . . Employees regularly move from one council to another. We have employees who have worked at Kingborough, Hobart, Clarence, Sorell, Tasman and, no doubt, many other Tasmanian councils . . . And they have employees who have worked here [Huon Valley Council] as well. It’s a normal avenue to get more experience and to get promotion.
Huon Valley Council has eight or nine staff who have at some time . . . worked at Glenorchy council . . . Since I have been commissioner, I have been responsible for the employment of one staff member who has worked at Glenorchy . . . that being our GM.
I have no say at all in the employment of any other staff. The employment of all other staff is the prerogative and responsibility of the GM . . . He tells me that . . . he has employed two staff who have previously worked at Glenorchy Council . . .
Innuendos of nepotism and poor governance, apart from being untrue and insulting, do damage to the reputation of this council and the whole community . . .
THOSE WHO read Huon News will recall Mike Wilson as the leader of HVC’s six-councillor majority bloc — known in the valley as the Heart of the Huon (HotH). It was a political grouping that, when it suited, could call the shots on any matter that it liked.
In a nutshell, with both council management and the Heart of the Huon quite clearly unwilling to co-operate with the then new mayor, Peter Coad — or even, it appeared, to pay serious respect to the office of mayor — council lapsed into dysfunction soon after the newly elected council first met in November 2014. Not much more than six months later, Coad, acknowledging the dysfunction, advised LG Minister Gutwein, who, in September 2015, appointed a board of inquiry, presumably in the hope of sorting out the mess. When the antagonism continued between Coad on one side and management and HotH councillors on the other, Gutwein, in October 2016 — by then armed with the findings of an inquiry into HVC’s behaviour — sacked the council and appointed Taylor as commissioner.
MIKE WILSON, before the 2014 election and throughout the life of the subsequent elected council, was a carping critic of Mayor Coad, at council meetings and in Huon News. In one brief theatrical outburst in the council chamber, Wilson accused Coad (who had only two informal supporters — independent Liz Smith and Green Ian Mackintosh) of running a dictatorship.
Coad — deputy mayor of Port Cygnet Council at the time it was abolished in 1993, HVC’s first deputy mayor the same year and an HVC councillor until 2005 — returned to council in 2014 on a reform platform he intended to promote should he also win the mayor’s job. His hopes got short shrift from the HotH team. For them, it was very much a case of wanting more of the rubber-stamp, visionless dross that former mayor (now MLC) Robert Armstrong’s various majority teams had served up since 2001.
Coad — whose mayoral victory had come as a surprise to his main opponent, Wilson, and probably to the valley’s influential behind-the-scenes old guard — found he had inherited a council with no investments in, or coherent plan for, the uncertain future facing the, as usual, struggling valley economy.
WITH that brief backgrounding, it’s back to Commissioner Taylor’s words at the beginning of the November 29 meeting. Continuing her pre-agenda statement, Taylor said:
. . . the Huon News has brought to my attention today that there has been further comments made in the public forum, I have not seen them but have been told about them, and I have been asked to clarify and comment on some questions. I would like to do so now and I am very pleased to see Mr Wilson in the gallery tonight as I believe these questions came from him and he might be pleased to hear the responses to them.
The HVC November 29, 2017, draft minutes record Taylor’s responses to Wilson’s apparent criticisms:
1. It is not the commissioner’s role to identify potential council candidates and encourage them to stand at the next council elections. Her role is that of a caretaker until such time as members of the public who believe they have something to contribute to council are elected.
“Commissioner Taylor read an extract from the Ministerial statement provided upon her reappointment and signed by Mr Peter Gutwein dated 17.07.17: “In her role, the commissioner has the powers to perform the functions of the councillors and has been working with council staff to implement the relevant ministerial directions and board of inquiry recommendations.
While the implementation of many of the directions and recommendations are complete, some that are of significant importance to the governance and operations of the Council are still underway. It may take some time before they are finalised and robust enough to properly support an incoming council.
“The work that is still to be completed includes the development and/or finalisation of statements of expectation to manage key relationships within the council, internal and external communication and consultation plans and processes, and a comprehensive councillor induction program in preparation for a new council.
“For clarification, Commissioner Taylor hopes this makes it clear what her role is, and that it is much more than just ‘caretaker’.”
2. Simone Watson’s termination was unnecessary and unwarranted. [Watson was HVC general manager until her services were terminated, with a payout of as much as, maybe more than, $200,000, a few weeks after Taylor moved in as commissioner in October last year.]
“Commissioner Taylor has no comment on this.”
3. Commissioner Taylor was once mayor of Glenorchy City Council and that we now have five new ex-Glenorchy Council staff who do not reside in the Huon working at the Huon Valley Council. [Taylor, an MLC 2010-2016, was a Glenorchy councillor 1999-2011 and mayor 2005-2011.]
“Commissioner Taylor would like to clarify that in actual fact there are probably eight or nine staff that have worked at Glenorchy City Council. Local Government is a public service industry which requires specific skills including such areas as planning, health regulations, compliance with the Local Government Act.
“Employees regularly move from one Council to another. We have employees who have worked at Kingborough, Hobart, Clarence, Sorell, Tasman and no doubt many other Tasmanian Councils as well as interstate ones. And they have employees who have worked here as well. It’s a normal avenue to get more experience and to get promotion. When position descriptions are advertised they regularly state ‘desirable to have local government experience’.
“Huon Valley Council has eight or nine staff who have at some time in the past worked at Glenorchy Council as well. Since I have been commissioner I have been responsible for the employment of one staff member who has worked at Glenorchy, Kingborough and previously this council. He was employed through a transparent, well documented process, that being our general manager.
“I have no say at all in the employment of any other staff. The employment of all other staff is the prerogative and responsibility of the general manager as the head of our operational arm. He tells me that since his appointment he has had direct involvement in the employment of two staff who have previously worked at Glenorchy council, the director of infrastructure services and the director environment and development services. Each director gave a brief description of their employment history.
“So the statement that we now have five new ex-Glenorchy City Council staff is incorrect. Whether they reside in the Huon Valley or not is immaterial.
“Innuendos of nepotism and poor governance apart from being untrue and insulting do damage to the reputation of this Council and the whole community. I look forward to members of the public bringing their concerns and questions to us, so that we can provide them with more accurate information in future.”
THE DAY after the November 29 council meeting, Taylor told Tasmanian Times that her reason for issuing a clarification was that the article in the Mercury had provoked emails and “a comment by Leon Compton on the ABC that clearly misunderstood what I was planning to do next year”. Taylor said that Compton had asked GCC commissioner Sue Smith whether “she thought me handpicking councillors for next year was appropriate”.
Taylor said that, after writing the media release re her plans for helping candidates, she had an email from the Huon News asking her to comment on three statements made by Mike Wilson.
“I do not know and have not seen to whom those comments were made, only that the Huon News obviously had received them and asked for comment.”
She said she had met the Huon News journalist, and, because it was council meeting night, “and for the sake of reassurance for the community that I am not overstepping the mark in my role”, she had “decided to share that information with you all at the council meeting”.
Taylor said she was particularly pleased that Mike Wilson was present “so that I could give him more accurate information than he obviously had in the hope that we might work more closely in preparation for next year’s elections”.
A SIDELIGHT to the method of helping candidates understand the role and duties of councillors comes in the form of a request in September from the incorporated Huon Valley Residents and Ratepayers Association for one of HVC’s “community grants”. [The author declares here that he is a paid-up member of HVRAA because he supports its aims to promote competent and honest local government.]
The association was formed last year with, among its aims, the intention “to provide community representation when the elected councillors were dismissed”. It has as its main objective, “helping to ensure that a strong and diverse council is elected at the next elections”.
Its application for a $2500 grant described in detail a project that it still intends to carry out. The application listed its “project aims”: to increase awareness of the wide range and importance of local government services; to foster public participation through awareness-raising activities; and to encourage members of the community to nominate for election at the 2018 LG elections.
The association told council it would do this by hosting public meetings with relevant guest speakers; printing and distributing brochures; creating and disseminating mainstream media content; generating and sustaining social media interest; and updating the HVRRA website — hvrra.weebly.com — to make it more relevant and informative.
The association told council it had “identified a number of issues relevant to the 2018 local government election”. Among them it listed apathy, lack of interest, lack of awareness and an attitude of ‘What does HVC actually do for me?’.
HVC grants, among other criteria, are for “annual funding and in-kind assistance to support community projects and programs that have a clear community benefit”.
HVRRA’s request was not recommended for approval by the assessment panel, consisting of four council staff members, at HVC’s October 25 ordinary meeting (item 19.007/17) on the ground that it was, “Ineligible. The project is for ongoing administration or operational costs”.
After the October 25 meeting, the association wrote to council to say “we find the assessment of the evaluation panel confusing” and requested a meeting “for clarification”. Its approach proved fruitless. At the November 29 HVC meeting, a “2017-18 Community Grants Re-evaluation” (item 19.013/17) was considered. Cygnet Bowls and Community Club, unsuccessful in its initial application, was now on the list, with a grant of $726 to buy a line marker; HVRRA’s application had again failed to make the cut. This left $5,976.55 unspent from council’s community-grants budget of $25,000.
It’s difficult to imagine why council thought the idea of a volunteer community association helping to polish up candidates for next year’s LG elections was not a “clear community benefit”. It’s also difficult to remove from my thoughts the notion that HVC might be determined to keep such a task to itself.
Or it might have been a suspicion that there could be a partisan aspect to HVRRA that disqualifies it from “encourag[ing] members of the community to nominate for election at the 2018 LG elections”. That the association — which is open to the membership of anyone who is a resident of the valley, or is a ratepayer to HVC — is an organisation that declares its role to be totally disinterested, and apolitical in its approach to all matters, is reinforced by reliable gossip that one Mike Wilson has applied for membership.
Now that’s something, if correct, that tickles my curiosity — and adds to the evidence that the association has wide appeal to valley residents who might be attracted to the idea of an association committed to representing their community interests and problems.
As to finding suitable candidates? God forbid that HVRRA should turn up community leaders gifted with brains, honesty, integrity, independence of mind, and imagination. As a general rule, these qualities don’t seem to have been much in demand in the political sphere, especially this past quarter century
A NAGGING THOUGHT. Why is Local Government Minister Peter Gutwein so determined that HVC will not get involved in local government-reform talks with its Kingborough Council neighbour? For some mysterious reason, Gutwein — despite his enthusiastic appeal a couple of years back to councils to get talking about local-government reform among themselves — has segregated HVC from all other councils and virtually barred it from participating in inter-council discussions, especially on the possibility of amalgamations.
Earlier this year, in a letter in a letter to Taylor, Gutwein confirmed this view by stating that he did not support the commissioner having discussions with Kingborough Council. Anything like that, he indicated, should be left to elected representatives.
That may be all high-flown and principled, but why should Commissioner Taylor not check out all the possibilities over the next year (while she continues to collect her $200,000-plus salary), and then assemble a comprehensive backgrounder to the implications of LG reform and possible amalgamation. That would be a mighty helpful document for consideration by what this writer hopes will be a talented new, younger elected council, with each member — impermeable to the wishes of old power brokers — committed to considering every issue on its merits.
One gets the feeling that the Hodgman Liberal Government has something special (but not for airing) in mind — perhaps, for example, the Southwood proposal for a woodchip export pile near Dover — for Tasmania’s southernmost municipality and doesn’t want its plans hindered by any suggestion of significant co-operation, perhaps even some form of merger or boundary realignment, with Kingborough, a much more enlightened organisation than valley people had to put up with in Huonville before it was sensibly sacked in 2016.
It’s most unlikely that the Tasmanian Labor Party would hold a view that differs much from that of the present largely destructive, imagination-poor, muddling Liberal government. One way or another, neither of the big parties seems to have plans to do much about the welfare — environmentally or economically — of the Huon; but they do seem concentrated on ensuring that in the Huon Valley there are as few obstacles as possible in the way of those who would extract millions of dollars from ultimately unviable industries, such as ocean fish-farming, clear-fell logging and woodchipping.
These industries do provide jobs (mostly unskilled). But for how long and at what cost to a lovely valley that should be seeing, and making, its future economy a mix of environmentally sensitive tourism; creative small businesses; and high-tech ventures, especially in renewables such as water, wind and solar and other activities that would make a belated but serious contribution to the ever-more imminent threats of catastrophic global-warming?
*Bob Hawkins, a journalist since the mid-1950s, has been covering the affairs of Huon Valley Council since 2009. His collected work is HERE