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THE HUON VALLEY Council’s next open meeting is its budget session tomorrow (June 23), and public gallery regulars are hoping — following the debacles that were the April and May meetings — that Huon Valley Team (HVT) councillors have swotted up on procedures.

If the consequences were not so serious, we could all have sat back and had a chuckle at the ineptitude on show in April and May. Hopes that, with the advent of new management in mid-2009, cultural change was in the air have all but faded. The dominant Huon Valley Team members still seem to see no value in the preservation of heritage; to fail to acknowledge factors such as global warming, peak oil, climate change and rising sea-levels; or to show any sense of the aesthetic.

What follows is fairly boring reading. However, because the Huon Valley has no public journal of record worthy of the name, Tasmanian Times is the chosen repository for this person’s recall of the performance of the council at its 2010 April and May meetings. This has been written in the hope that one day a historian researching the Huon Valley’s history will look to TT as a source of information about valley happenings.

At Huon Valley Council meetings these days, general manager Glenn Doyle has to spend an inordinate amount of time simply trying to keep proceedings on course. Meanwhile, the HVT charges ahead littering the landscape with subdivisions for which there is low demand and debasing symbols of the region’s heritage. The HVT’s cohesion has suffered badly since the departure its oldest and steadiest member, Laurie Dillon, who retired as deputy mayor and councillor late last year.

The April meeting had plenty of farce; and the May meeting was farce most of the time, especially when council was acting as a planning authority; with real estate salesman mayor Robert Armstrong out of the chamber because of declarations of interest — he rarely ever is able to be present for these sessions because of his interests — the job of chairman fell to deputy mayor Bruce Heron.

The April meeting

The farce began during public question time, only a minute or two into the meeting. Mayor Armstrong was soon in bullying mode when an elector in the public gallery politely tried to put his question into context: it was all about heritage values and the township of Franklin, and he tried to read briefly from a ‘Huon Area Heritage Study 1983’ as backgrounding.

“What’s the question?” demanded the mayor, interjecting. He was in no mood for the niceties of the elector’s effort to help councillors understand where his question was coming from. (Yet again the mayor was forgetting he is an elected servant of the community, not a he-who-must-be-obeyed controller of its inhabitants. Ah, the burden of high parish-pump office. It’s far too heavy for some mortals.)

The questioner, after another polite attempt to resist the mayor’s repeated denial of his democratic right to have his say, gave up his informative approach and simply read out his question — which then got the short shrift most questions from the public get at HVC meetings.

Perhaps it was the title of the report the questioner was reading from that had the mayor worried. God forbid, the questioner might have been advocating that the council should at long last imbue itself with a sense of history, of culture, of heritage! Mayor Armstrong leads a grouping in council that rarely suggests anything that recognises cultural values.

In the council’s always-inadequate minutes of meetings, only the bare bones of questions from the public gallery are recorded. And the answers, whether from councillors or council officers, are not recorded (this also usually applies to questions without notice from councillors). Council rules say the public are not allowed to ask a question that “relates to business on the agenda for tonight’s meeting”.

Why was the mayor so impatient? Might it have been because the questioner was a person who had campaigned strongly (but in vain) to resist a council decision early last year (supported by Armstrong and his voting bloc) to demolish Franklin’s historic mid-20th century football clubrooms; and who has been helping the campaign to resist the consequences of the council’s decision (only the council’s two Greens voted against it) to allow Southern Water to disfigure, with a pipeline, the historic 19th century canal that runs across South Egg Island between Franklin and Cradoc.

(The Resource Management and Planning Appeal Tribunal has since over-ruled the council’s canal decision and decreed that the pipeline, although it will still go through the canal, will be positioned at a depth that will allow continued navigation by small vessels and for the pipeline not to be visible. Whether Southern Water can meet the new conditions imposed on it remains to be seen, especially considering a Telstra cable runs along the bed of the canal. A better solution, which would involve the pipeline being laid across the island in a largely extant ditch and then covered, still seems to be anathema to DPIPWE.)

THE COUNCIL’S investment-loss farce rolled on in April. The report from the manager corporate services (MCS), titled ‘Council investments — collateralised debt obligations’ (CDOs), evoked barely a murmur from councillors apart from a “Very disappointing” comment on the disastrous latest news on two CDO investments totalling $4 million, and a couple of Dorothy Dixers re new investments, one of which the MCS thought would earn an interest rate of “about 5.7%”.

Yet the financial report revealed that a combination of two losses ($1,729,152, reported in January, and $1,270,848, reported from the Commonwealth Bank on March 29) had rendered the $3 million CDO investment worth exactly zilch. That was the really bad news. The not-quite-so-bad news in the MCS’s report was that, in relation to the Oasis CDO investment of $1m, “the above credit default has no impact on this investment and at this point in time the full $1m remains intact”. Oddly, in the same report, the $1 million CDO investment was given a February market value of just $18,000. I fear that one million dollars looks more cactus than intactus.

There was more farce yet in the MCS report: “As part of council’s resolve to pursue the recovery of any losses incurred, discussions have been continuing with a mainland-based legal firm specialising in this area of litigation . . . As full details of legal actions must be reported in closed council, further information regarding council’s legal recourse cannot be provided at this time. Council administration has been very proactive in relation to the recovery of the full value of the principal invested using appropriate means.”

So the council was continuing the blame-anyone-but-us game. As a ratepayer, and as someone reconciled to believing that my council has probably blown about $4m, I would be taking a much more benign attitude towards council if it would seriously acknowledge its own role in this sorry saga of a public institution that played fast and loose with a lot of our money. In 2006, it chose to invest long-term in exotic financial products that offered tempting interest rates. The consequence has been the probably loss of about a quarter of council’s cash reserves.

No local government council has the right to speculate with public money or to treat it like petty cash to blow on the poker machines. Public money should never be invested long term and councils should never play for high returns. As any fool knows, promise of high returns always mean high risk.

It beggars belief that the mayor in 2006 did not know that these investments were being made (he has said that he did not know about them until their existence became general knowledge via the council’s annual meeting in December 2008). And it beggars belief that council at first claimed that the 2006 CDO investments were due to mature in 2011, when, in fact, it later had to admit (presumably after reading the fine print of its contracts) that they do not mature until 2014.

And there is another council investment, of $1m, that only earns interest when the “bank bill swap rate” (BBSR) is within a certain range (see D. de Burgh, It’s Your Opinion, Huon Valley News, March 3, 2010, for a detailed rundown on this amazing “dual range” investment). 

Of the dual-range investment, de Burgh wrote: “Whenever the BBSR is outside (the BBSR) range, the investment earns nothing. If you wish to withdraw your money inside the 5-year investment term, you lose all the interest previously paid. Yes, you might have noticed, it was a gamble, just like the CDOs.” (Council, it appears, has been paid interest on the dual-range deposit for only about half the time since it was invested nearly three years ago.)

Why haven’t council heads rolled as a consequence of this sorry, and costly, financial farce? The general manager at the time is no longer with council. The reason has never been revealed for his departure: did he jump, was he pushed, was he sacked? Council still has the same mayor, who should have resigned by now, if for no other reason than that, as he has admitted, he was ignorant of the existence of the CDO investments made in 2006 until December 2008.

Council still has the same staff member in charge of financial affairs. The councillor who held the “finance portfolio” when the CDO and dual-range investments were made no longer has that portfolio but is now a member of the council executive committee.

The council, instead of admitting its own foolishness and irresponsibility, is acting as if the losses are water under the bridge and that it is now up to the lawyers to try get the money back from those that council is coyly saying are to blame.

I cannot see the organisation council is blaming for its own foolishness buckling under such pressure. Nor can I imagine how a financial adviser who suggested the investments had the backing of so-called reputable international ratings agencies can be forced to pay compensation.

With the council having assembled such a tangled web of information on the investments issue, the mayor has undermined credibility he may have retained had he come out when he first knew about the debacle and made a public apology to the people who will be paying the bill for their council’s rashness.

THE HIGHEST farce in April came when the meeting got to the minutes of the Franklin Township Development Committee meeting and the staff recommendation that council pledge its support for a 50kph speed limit along part of that township’s main road.

A 50kmh speed limit through Franklin has been talked about for ages and it has often been a topic at meetings of the TDC and the local progress association. The consensus has clearly been for such a limit.

Yet, suddenly, there was the mayor backing his deputy’s call for consultation with the community on the issue. This was indeed high farce coming from a man who over the years has presided over council resistance to consultation and communication with the electorate on a variety of far more consequential issues.

“Through you, Mr Mayor”, where was the community consultation over the council’s Franklin football clubrooms decision? Where was the community consultation over the proposal for a pipeline in the South Egg Island canal? Where was the community consultation over the secret water scheme council staff worked on for years before handing over a poorly-thought-out plan to Southern Water last year? Where was the community consultation about the public open space to be included in the subdivision that is scarring the bottom end of Mary Street, Cygnet? And — noting the agenda item about tenders for a street sweeping machine for discussion in the closed part of the April meeting — where has been the community “communication and consultation” on the acquisition of a noisy, inefficient machine like the one that has been trundling around the municipality’s main centres these past six months?

(The “street-cleaning”, dual-control, two-person monster makes an unholy din; it blows as much rubbish into the road as it sucks up; it doesn’t seem to patrol any but the main streets; it must cost heaps to truck from one township to another; it burns loads of energy and spews out lots of carbon; and, should one be acquired for permanent use, it will deny part-time work for street cleaners in each of the townships. The street sweeper looks very much like an obnoxious, white-elephant, lose-lose project to me.)

Mayor Armstrong, on the speed-limit recommendation, radiated all the signs of a born-again councillor, zealous in his determination that the council’s relatively new, wordy, almost unintelligible, ‘Communication and Consultation Strategy’ should be invoked so that the community’s views could be gleaned for an issue that — it seems apart from the mayor and a couple of fellow councillors — has been resolved for some time. All that the Franklin community wanted at the April meeting was for council to throw in its support for an appeal to DIER (Department of Infrastructure, Energy and Resources) to agree to the 50kph speed limit.

Yet again, in the months since council’s change of management last August, the mayor was to find himself in the minority: six of the nine councillors voted for the recommendation. The Huon Valley Team’s ranks, at least on non-core issues, are showing much less rigidity these days.

MOVING on through the April agenda, the public gallery had to play the guessing game again when councillors donned their “acting as a planning authority” hats. Why? Because the agenda notes supplied to the public on entry to the council chamber were missing pages 22-56, all the pages relevant to “planning authority” issues.

The explanation for this omission was on page 21: “At this stage, given legal advice provided to the council, it has been agreed that copies of plans and representations associated with developments (whilst available for review on the council’s website or at the council office) will not be included as an attachment to the publicly available Agenda Reports.”

What a lot of codswallop! Apart from issues dealt with in closed council, all council meeting papers should be made available to the public and should be supplied, especially to those with enough public spirit, by attending meetings, to take an interest in the behaviour and attitudes of councillors.

Yes, the Huon Valley Council is again up to the tricks that characterised its previous management; in this instance, hiding behind “legal advice” and making it impossible for those interested enough in council business to make sense of what often are complicated planning issues.

With no reference point at all to the planning business under discussion at the April meeting, we sat there while the Huon Valley Team approved recommendations that in some cases, for all we knew, could have been based on questionable legal interpretations.

Most importantly, one decision the council made has the potential to allow one of the prettiest promontories in the Port Cygnet vista — Green Point — to eventually have at least seven buildings and possibly a dozen or more. Such a development would fly in the face of the spirit of an observation by the Tasmanian Planning Commission (TPC, formerly the Resource Planning and Development Commission) — in a report last year — that there should be no more than two residences on Green Point, including the existing one.

(Perhaps some of the 40 or so people who last year signed a petition, or those who made representations to the TPC, against the despoliation of Green Point, a wonderful natural feature of the Port Cygnet coastline, might like to enlighten Tasmanian Times with their views.)

ANOTHER cause for despair at the council’s behaviour came in a reply by its legal officer to a question about the recent bulldozing of trees recognised as swift parrot habitat at Big Roaring Beach. The council had not been aware of it and hadn’t taken any action, he said. As simple as that.

There were more, too many to remember . . .

The May meeting

The council’s instinct for environmental vandalism was again evident at the May meeting. Against the considered advice of its planning staff, council decided it was fine for three skillion-roof dwellings in Franklin’s quaint Temperance Lane; it also decided that it was OK to deface the imposing and precipitous forest-clad Bullock Hill (across the road from the Grove store a few kilometres north of Huonville) with a 28-residence development; and it admitted that it had poisoned poplar trees at Cygnet because their roots were interfering with the cricket club’s practice nets.

The Temperance Lane decision was contested by the two Greens councillors and Huon Valley Team member and Castle Forbes resident Mike Wilson.

The Bullock Hill project was also contested by the Greens.

The poplar tree poisoning at Cygnet was, it seemed, just something council staff had done routinely with no public consultation. The problem, if in fact it really was a problem, had not even been brought to the notice of the Cygnet Township Development Committee (and, so far, it has not been revealed who complained about the alleged problem the trees were causing).

When council moved into planning authority mode in May, deputy mayor Heron performed like a fish out of water, flip-flopping his way through three long-drawn-out “planning authority reports”. He got by thanks to the patient assistance of general manager Doyle, who also did his best to guide hapless HV Team councillors who, with the exception of the youngest of them, should have had enough experience to know about the rules of debate and formulation of motions and amendments.

Two councillors seemed to lose the procedural plot completely, yet still manage to achieve what many would regard as an act of environmental vandalism against yet another feature that, in its own small way geographically, is a valuable part of nature’s mosaic that makes the Huon Valley such a tourist drawcard.

What the May meeting told public gallery occupants was that the council, as it is presently constituted, is really not up to the job of managing the affairs of the Huon Valley. One usually loyal council supporter observed later what a mess the meeting had been, and went on to say so in the Huon Valley News; and another walked out mid-meeting appalled by council’s latest display of philistinism.

The controlling group seems to fail to realise that the more they batter and scar the natural beauty of the wonderful valley they are responsible for, the more they are undermining the stability of its economic future.

The Temperance Lane debacle in Franklin is a small example of yet another unsympathetic development of an area that captures much of the atmosphere of this picturesque and historic township and is a reflection of the way things once were.

Dated June 2007, a draft document “for public consultation”, entitled ‘Huon Valley Land Use and Development Strategy’ states: “The Huon Valley is recognised for its unique landscapes and these are central to the tourism economy . . . Landscapes are often central to a community’s sense of place. It is therefore necessary that the landscape values of the Huon Valley be identified and managed appropriately . . . The visual elements that are most valuable are: the densely forested hill-tops, gullies and mountains that form a backdrop to the settled areas . . .”

The Bullock Hill development will manifest itself as a huge wound on the magnificently forested, steep escarpment tourists now enjoy as they head north from Huonville through Grove.

Other acts of environmental vandalism in recent years by the Huon Valley Team include:
— Dawn destruction of the Franklin football clubrooms in February 2009.
— A move (ultimately resisted by locals) to demolish the Franklin Palais.
— Defacing of the area in front of Cygnet’s historic church buildings with an impractical and aesthetically unfortunate car park.
— Totally inappropriate trees along Cygnet’s main street.
— The refusal a few years ago to endorse (only as a vision, mind you) a well-thought out $1m plan to enhance Cygnet as one of the state’s most attractive southern tourist venues, on the grounds that it was unaffordable then and in the future. This from a council that soon afterwards went on to gamble away possibly $4 million of its cash assets by “investing” them in exotic financial products that were clearly in no way “conservative”. (Mayor Armstrong is now promoting a much-diminished vision for Cygnet at a time when the village’s image is being increasingly scarred by slow-selling sub-divisions. The physical attractions of Cygnet that draw visitors to the area are gradually being diminished by unnecessary and destructive land development and by failing to impose sensitive architectural standards in a town the heart of which, at least, is worthy of heritage listing.)
— Unswerving support for the development of salmon fish farms up and down the Huon despite the huge environmental damage that is being suffered by this magnificent waterway. The damage is increasingly becoming apparent. Pollution takes the form of noise, light and smells. Fisheries rubbish often is washed up on the shoreline. High levels of nutrients and antibiotics drift up and down the river. To feed the salmon, thousands of tonnes of wild fish are imported, mostly from overseas. In the just-premiered British film lamenting the destruction of fish stocks worldwide, The End of the Line, one statistic suggests that it takes 5kg of wild fish (too small or not wanted for human consumption) to produce just 1kg of Atlantic salmon. Why should private companies, in their pursuit of profit, be allowed to rip off the planet, its people and other life forms in this way — all to the applause of tunnel-visioned national, state and local governments?
— Destruction in April 2009, without informing councillors, of hundreds of metres of protected coastal vegetation on the high side of the road on the Cygnet side of Abels Bay. Surprise, surprise, that land is now subject of a development application that might not have stood a chance of approval had the “protected” vegetation still been in place.

Tasmania’s reputation as a state that makes laws that, when it is convenient, are there to be broken, remains intact. Here in the Huon Valley, far too much continues to happen as a result of secret decision-making that sometimes not even councillors are privy to. And too many decisions are being made in the council chamber that are detrimental to the long-term economic and environmental future of the valley.

The Huon Valley is being poorly served by its present council, and there is little prospect that its make-up will change substantially in the near future. In the meantime, the valley’s economy and environment will continue to suffer. It’s all so sad for a region that is acknowledged by some authorities as one of the best places on the planet to be at this time of warnings of climate change and so many other environmental dangers.

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