In an email message announcing the appointment of a general manager, put out on September 1 “To: Broadcast” and “CC: Councillors with Email”, mayor Robert Armstrong said “ . . . the time is now right for a new approach so we can move forward together, delivering high quality services . . .” Shades of Joe Quimby.

A disturbing aspect of the council’s GM selection process is that four of the councillors never got to know the names or credentials of any of the other applicants — which means the same four (after the five-councillor “recruitment panel” had indicated who they thought should get the job) had absolutely nothing against which to assess the credentials of the applicant who had been given the panel’s nod.

Ratepayers and residents of the Huon Valley deserve better. The way I see it, the selection process had all the hallmarks of a charade. Whether it was or not, none of us is ever likely to know considering everyone on the recruitment panel is certain to be bound by confidentiality agreements. Certainly I did not detect any hint of a rumour around the valley as to who any of the other applicants might have been.

So, the council’s leadership (if you read the Local Government Act, you will realise that general managers, not mayors, run councils) has been handed to valley native Glenn Doyle, who was judged best of 29 applicants. Although the final full council vote was unanimous, we will probably never know how the recruitment panel voted. 

Doyle was brought back to the council in Huonville in 2007 — by long-serving general manager Geoff Cockerill — after a few years in a managerial role at Hobart City Council, where he answered to then general manager Brent Armstrong, the man the Huon Valley Council chose as its consultant to help it find a GM.

The new GM began his local government career with Esperance Council, which disappeared in the amalgamations of 1993, when he joined the newly created Huon Valley Council (a combination of the disbanded Esperance, Dover and Cygnet councils). 

It is to be hoped that Doyle, in these early days of his appointment, is savouring the great opportunity he has to prove to valley doubters that, despite his geographically narrow career experience, he is both ready to put an end to the council’s ad hoc/Band-Aid practices and show that he is capable of working to shape it to meet the avalanche of new and unprecedented challenges facing every level of government all over the planet.

Rather than planning for not much more than tomorrow, the valley desperately needs a council that is willing to look decades ahead and develop serious strategies that will at least attempt to meet the many formidable challenges.

By the look of the agenda for this month’s council meeting (September 9), Doyle is making Kevin Rudd’s hard-pressed federal bureaucrats look like a bunch of slackers (more on that in Guessing Games 11).

A small but significant something Doyle might think about is to give an identity to the council’s vehicles and equipment. Does any other local government council in Australia not wear its emblem with pride? A more practical consequence of such a move might be to help council contain its fuel bills. Certainly, in terms of its everyday practical performance — and the always pleasant and helpful council counter and office staff — the Huon Valley Council has no reasons to hide its lights.

Doyle, then acting general manager, hit one discordant note at the council’s August meeting that suggests habits of the past may linger. He said the council’s new “consultation and communication (C&C)” policy (approved at the same meeting) had been applied to Cygnet’s George Street residential development, a project that is of vital importance to the future of the town. Locals concerned about the quality of the council’s plan would strongly contest his assertion.

Nevertheless, the August meeting of council was easily the most pleasant and relaxed I have attended. There was uncharacteristic banter and even a joke or two; there was an unprecedented thick pile of meeting documents (excluding secret council business, of course) on a small table for public perusal; and, before leaving, we were all invited to pick up a copy of the new C&C policy and of the Annual Plan 2009-10. Were we witnessing the genesis of an age of enlightenment?

Doyle’s appointment comes in the dying days of the present council. It seems the valley’s power brokers felt a new line-up of councillors after October elections would not be experienced enough to make a sensible choice for a successor to Cockerill, who, at the end of August, stopped working at the council he had headed (more like an emperor than a public servant) for about a decade-and-a-half.

The council’s monthly meeting in November could see a vastly different line-up from the one that now largely rubber-stamps the policies, strategies and recommendations staff place before it. And even when a councillor decides to move that discretionary powers should be used to reject a staff recommendation, it is amazing how often he is conveniently armed with a suitable — often legalistic, all-bases-covered — amendment that leaves public galley observers amazed at the erudition of these lay people who represent us.

Policies, strategies, plans . . . have been pouring forth in especially big lumps since Cockerill’s departure. It was this torrent of paper and the fact that staff jobs were being advertised in the absence of a substantive general manager that gave keen council observers a sense of pre-determination.

Doyle’s appointment comes on the eve of local government elections. Voting for councillors, mayor and deputy mayor begins on October 12 and, on present evidence, it seems there could be up to three new faces, possibly more, at the November meeting. At the moment, mayor Armstrong’s group has six votes and it usually also gets the vote of the “independent” Mike Wilson. On most issues, votes are unanimous thanks to the support of the two Greens councillors

None of the five councillors, whose terms run out in October, has publicly announced whether he intends to stand for re-election. But those who play the guessing game are betting that Laurie Dillon (deputy mayor), Tony Duggan and Tony Richardson will not be standing again. The other two, Bruce Heron and Wilson, are thought to want to keep their seats — but there could be surprises in store.

Considering the council’s reputation for being secretive and obfuscatory, and because of mishaps and failures over the past couple of years — among them the loss of about $4 million in a speculative but low-interest investment and the failure of council to meet its obligation, under the Local Government Act, to pass a new strategic plan — mayor Armstrong might even be weighing whether he should seek to continue as top dog.

All councillors are keeping their cards close to their chests. Should I run for mayor? Should I run for deputy mayor? Would it be better not to run for anything at all? Is the council’s power bloc still watertight?

One rumour in circulation is a mayor/deputy mayor ticket of the sitting mayor (a real estate salesman) and Wilson (tourism-related developer). No aspirants to either of these positions have yet shown their hands, but it would be surprising if mayor Armstrong did not attempt to extend his term.

Among expected aspirants to councillor status are five women:

— Castle Forbes Bay’s Jillian Law, whose campaign car and regular advertisements in the Huon Valley News declare her “Liberal for Franklin”. Potholes, kerbing and guttering and public footpaths seem to be the main planks of her platform.

— Geeveston’s Abby McKibbin, whose uncle-in-law was once a valley councillor. She said on ABC’s Stateline in June that she would be using her “age as a voice for the next generation”.

— Franklin Green Celia Leverton, daughter of a long-time Tasmanian family. She has worked as an ABC rural journalist and is now a leader of the permaculture movement.

— Lymington Green Rosalie Woodruff, a health and climate-change researcher.

— Judbury Green Anna Feeley, an outdoor education and adventure tourism leader.

Nominations close on September 28.

Having watched the uneven performance of the Huon Valley Council for the past three years — and closely for the past 18 months — my suggestion to ratepayers and residents is that they should throw caution to the wind and vote for anyone who is not a sitting councillor.

At least that way the valley would give itself a better chance of tackling the challenges and realities of today rather having to settle for a council that has a serious ostrich syndrome on big issues, issues that most of the present line-up just don’t seem to want to know about.

The October election also presents a golden opportunity to cut into the ranks of what one local bloke calls the “little boys’ club”, thus narrowing the present appallingly unrepresentative 8-1 gender gap.

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.

BOB HAWKINS
Hate saying “I told you so”, so I won’t. Unanimously, it seems, Huon Valley’s councillors have voted for what could prove to be the status quo. The unanimity is a tad surprising: one would have thought that at least the Greens councillors might have been tempted to register protest votes against the possibility of more of the same from this hitherto almost strategy-less council. But, as is becoming apparent — especially since Peg Putt’s departure at state level and an environmentalist rock star’s corralling by a federal centre party — Greens idealism these days is not as rock solid as it used to be.