Image for Gutwein Huon probe report due Friday

Huon Valley Guessing Games

Unless the two-person board of inquiry into the Huon Valley Council has sought another extension of time, its report should be with Minister for Local Government Peter Gutwein by close of business Friday (January 29).

Few think its findings will be a clean-sweep exoneration of all involved. That would be far too embarrassing for Gutwein because he knows he must be seen to be doing something about problems afflicting some councils in the South.

There are, of course, those who believe problems within HVC are so severe that nothing short of the appointment of an administrator will suffice.

So, will the report amount to little more than a rap over the knuckles for those who have attracted the disfavour of the BoI, or will the messy impasse that Gutwein’s September 9, 2015, inquiry announcement suggested result in something more severe?

Nothing to my knowledge has seeped from the BoI since it wrapped up its interviews, pre-Christmas, with those councillors, council staff and representors it decided required questioning, or had information of substance to offer for consideration when it made its final deliberations.

Though some observers are suggesting that they don’t think the report will be complete in time to meet the minister’s January 29 deadline, there appears to have been no official announcement of a delay. So it is probably reasonable to assume the report will be in on time. 

Whatever the board’s findings, it is unlikely Gutwein will surprise us all by divulging any too soon either the report or its recommendations. It’s not in the nature of governments to do something today that can be put off until tomorrow; and some are suggesting Gutwein will be saying nothing at all about the report on the HVC at least until the report of the inquiry into the affairs of the Glenorchy Council is in. (The Glenorchy report, I believe, has been ordered by February 15.)

There is, of course, another possibility — such is the course of politics, which tends to veer unpredictably with tangents often leading nowhere — that the people will never know the contents of either the report or its recommendations.

One would imagine that HVC will get a copy of the BoI report, as should all councillors, but whether the people ever get to see what the BoI came up with is moot.

Accounts from some of those who were interviewed, about 80 representations, and complaints — serious or frivolous — against council in general and individuals in particular, suggest the BoI has received a wealth of material that would convince it that there was more to meet the eye than the basics of Gutwein’s inquiry announcement last September, which suggested “civil war” in the council (meaning between GM Simone Watson and Mayor Peter Coad?). And, of course, the usual scuttlebutt around the valley has added much to the intrigue.

One choice morsel was that a plethora of skills training — possibly even skills qualification courses — has been going on at council for weeks. Surely this wouldn’t have been a consequence of at least one witness having the audacity to suggest to the BoI that some council staff were not qualified for the positions they held, and that nepotism at HVC was not unknown?

If the BoI has been doing its job, such activity — if it has, indeed, occurred — will not have gone unnoticed.

MEANWHILE, at tonight’s council meeting (Wednesday, January 27), just to let the world know how hardworking and successful council is, Cr Ken Studley has on the agenda a series of Dorothy Dixers for answer by the GM.

Studley’s questions, verbatim from council’s Meeting Reports, make fascinating reading:

1. Could the General Manager please provide the council with answers to the following questions;

a) How many patients have attended the HVC health centres in the last 12 months (breakdown by town and health centre)?

b) How many halls are maintained by HVC for community purposes.

c) How many persons have attended HVC sport centres and swimming pools over the last 12 months?

d)  What are the levels of engagement (likes, shares, comments and views) from the HVC social media campaign?

e) What is the progress on the Geeveston Town theme project?

f) How many community events has HVC directly facilitated or delivered in the past 12 months compared to 3 years ago?

g) What is the progress of the Huon Valley Brand implementation?

h) How much has HVC spent on Roads in the past 12 months (and any significant works) and what is the extent of road plans that HVC had in place prior to October 2014?

2. Could the General Manager please inform the council a breakdown of council decisions from October 2014 to December 2015 in particular;

a) How many decisions were made by Council during this period?

b) Of those decision, how many were unanimous – number and percentage?

c) How many times did the 6 councillors whom advertised as the last election “these people have the Huon at Heart” (Paul, Wilson, Heron, Ruzicka, Eastley and Studley) vote exclusively against any of those decisions?

d) How many times did other councillors not mentioned in 2c vote exclusively against any of those decisions?

e) Of the remaining decisions that were not unanimous (i.e. excluding the decisions in 2c and 2d) how many of those were a mix of councillors from 2c and 2d

Just who Studley is trying to impress is anyone’s guess — surely it’s not the board-of-inquiry’s two members as they put the finishing touches to their report to Gutwein?

The answers to a lot of Studley’s questions can be found in public council documents. And that silly second series of questions, about councillors’ voting patterns! All he has to do is to look back through council minutes. It seems to me that Studley may have spent far too long in a totally undemocratic institution to be able to appreciate that out here in our so-called democratic civil society (despite political party constraints on their members) elected representatives of the people are free to vote in any way they choose.

What is known is that, when Heart of the Huon councillors want to block prying eyes into what should be a publicly transparent issue, they will do so as a block (they need only five of their number to approve or reject a motion).

Council’s ridiculous audit-committee policy is a classic example of how it is impossible for a serious audit matter coming from territory hostile to the Heart of the Huon team ever to get before the audit committee.

Councillors Studley and Mike Wilson seem to have been in election mode ever since council returnee Peter Coad soundly defeated Wilson in the October 2014 election for the mayor’s job. Studley and Wilson have been running regular “tell us your concerns” advertisements in the Huon Valley News, which for years has unquestioningly published, mostly verbatim, council’s well-spun media releases.

Considering that the next local government elections are not due before October 2018, one wonders if Studley and Wilson know something we out here in tell-them-nothing-land are not aware of; and whether between them they have decided which of them should be the front runner for the mayor’s job.

At tonight’s council meeting, it will be interesting to see how the GM deals with Studley’s so obviously political — and management-time-wasting — ploy.

As to the findings of the board-of-inquiry, those who, like me, believe council has, down the years, regularly demonstrated moments of alarming lack of competence — and, worse, a frustrating penchant for inexplicable secrecy — have little grounds for optimism that Minister Gutwein’s apparent attempt to get to the heart of Huon Valley Council’s problems will bear fruit. — Bob Hawkins

FRIDAY January 29 ...

• Bob Hawkins’ Update ...

One wonders if some of the Heart of the Huon councillors are past caring about what the board of inquiry thinks about their council. At Wednesday evening’s meeting, with BoI member Jill Taylor in the public gallery, HVC’s reputation as something of a secret society was hugely enhanced.

Heart diehards, defending the status quo and resisting any suggestion of outside interference, solidly blocked two moves that would allow the public to get a glimpse of council’s inner workings on substantial or controversial matters.

First off, Cr Liz Smith’s notice of motion for “an independent review of all [council’s] operational services” so that it could “deliver the objectives of the Strategic Plan 2015-2025 in the most efficient and effective way” foundered at the hands of the six-vote Heart bloc, ostensibly on grounds of cost, but a more concerned tone made it obvious that no one outside of council was going to be allowed tell it how to run things. Smith’s observation that to make the 10-year strategy plan effective, “we need to get our house in order”, didn’t sit well with Heart member and deputy mayor Ian Paul, who constantly reminds us that everything at council is hunky-dory.

Shifted by the GM into “closed council” was another notice of motion by Smith, this time on the grounds that CDOs (collateral debt obligations) are unmentionables in open council. Smith’s motion called for an “independent external forensic inquiry be undertaken to establish the circumstances leading to the decisions to invest $4 million of council (ratepayers’) funds in 2006 in CDOs . . .”.

A unanimous vote on a procedural motion would have been needed to overrule GM Watson’s decision to keep debate away from public ears. Only council’s three seriously progressive members, Mayor Coad, Smith and newcomer Ian Mackintosh thought it was time the public got an insight into a festering sore that has caused much suspicion throughout the community as to what it was that went on nearly a decade ago that led to council losing about $4 million on the global money mart.

Coad informed councillors of the GM’s advice as to why the motion should not be debated in open council. But he did say that the confidential settlement with ComBank, announced late last year, had a confidentiality clause that prevented the settlement sum from being revealed. So Smith’s motion remained on the closed-council agenda. Hoi polloi is unlikely ever to know which way the vote went. But BoI member Taylor might know should she have decided to stay on to listen to councillors in secret session.

Next day, a ratepayer, referring to Coad’s observation about the settlement with the bank, said: “It raises the question on how the HVC intends to show this payment in its financial reports.” It does indeed. I’m sure the state auditor-general would want to see the claw-back amount in public documents.

HVC is well-practised at keeping from the public that which it does not want them to know. Is it peanuts, or a substantial sum, that council is getting (has got?) back from the bank? The public certainly has a right to know about the consequences of the actions nearly a decade ago of a council — then led by now-MLC Robert Armstrong, and under the general-managership of Geoff Cockerill and financial management of Mike Norman — plunged a third of council’s cash reserves into investments that were anything but conservative.

In council’s Huon Valley 2020 Community Plan, and in each of its annual reports, council asserts: “In all our dealings we will be open, fair and honest”. If the people of the Huon Valley are to be saved from more secrecy and unpleasant surprises at the hands of its seemingly blinkered, insular council, something dramatic needs to be in the report that the BoI hands to Gutwein tomorrow January 29).

SATURDAY, January 30 . . .

● Bob Hawkins’ Update . . .

Whispers are circulating that the BoI members didn’t meet their January 29 deadline, instead asking for a few more weeks to finish their report. If the whispers are correct (and the deadline has, in fact, been extended), the hopes are lifted of some who were feeling that a few too many stones might have been left unturned. What might have provoked the new deadline? A need for further examination of things such as CDOs, credit cards, privatisation of Geeveston Town Hall, camping ground arrangements, a Franklin jetty, a medical centre, a sports centre, delegated authority, the behaviour of some individuals, financial statements, legal considerations . . . ? Who knows!

• Bob Hawkins in Comments: #4 Hi Linda: If I were 20 years younger, and I thought I had any chance of becoming a councillor, I would have stood for election long ago. But I’m nearing the end of my eighth decade; there’s no way I’d get elected without joining a political team; and I can’t find anyone to take on the task of trying to keep our council up to the mark. And, anyway, who would want to be gagged by an establishment-orientated local government act that makes it almost impossible for anyone inside council (elected or staff) to speak out freely should they spot something that is not being done according to the rules? As a citizen of a parliamentary democracy, I’m entitled to an opinion, and — because, at least for the moment, we are still entitled to freedom of speech — to express it. I’ll continue to attempt to bring balance to the political debate in the Huon by offering views that run counter to years of council spin, which the valley’s media have been happy to publish, mostly verbatim, and mostly without question. I receive no remuneration for my articles; I have no business interest in Tasmanian Times; and I do not stand to benefit financially in any way as a result of what I write. Whenever you raise a valid criticism, I’ll do my best to respond fairly, or to concede that you have a point. In the meantime, each of us is entitled to to do our master’s bidding. In my case, I like to think I take orders from my conscience. Who do you take yours from?