Just for a while, in May, shafts of sunlight shone on a hitherto murky scene. Questions posed by valley residents concerned about the opacity of the GM selection process were beginning to be answered:
— We at last got an explanation of how the council intended to pursue its search.
— We were told the name (hitherto withheld) of the person who had been hired to help the council in its search.
— We were told the names of those that would be on the recruitment committee. (We still don’t know who it was who decided who those people would be. We still don’t know if the “selection panel” the council has mentioned — presumably to draw up a short shortlist — is one and the same as the recruitment panel. The final choice, we understand, will be made at a closed meeting of the full council, as it should be.)
— We were assured the position would be advertised nationwide, including on a job-search website and with the Local Government Employment Service — and this has been done.
Although these disclosures were, at the time, reassuring to us that transparency was slowly permeating the council’s selection process, I and others remained concerned that the burst of sunlight might have been designed to blind us to a sub-plot or an agenda that is not available to the people the council purportedly exists to serve.
So I wrote to a variety of leading politicians (Green, Labor and Liberal) and two government bodies (the Local Government Division of the Department of Premier and Cabinet; and the Local Government Association of Tasmania (LGAT), which, its website says, “represents the 29 councils that make up local government in Tasmania” and “supports local councils so that they, in turn, are well placed to serve their communities”).
Each letter had a first paragraph specifically directed to the addressee.
Here is an edited version of the issues my letter raised:
From the beginning, the council has been highly secretive in its approach to (the task of appointing a general manager). Only through community pressure has the council started to reveal to residents of the Huon Valley how it is going about its search.
And the more it has been forced to reveal, the less it looks to many of us ratepayers in the valley that the council is going about the process in an ethical or principled manner.
The main problem is the consultant it has chosen to help it in the recruitment process.
No one is questioning the integrity of former Hobart City Council general manager Brent Armstrong. He is regarded as a highly respected former bureaucrat. Our problem is that, for the council to choose such a person to help it in its search, it appears that it has compromised its own position as well as that of any Tasmanian aspirant to the job, especially those already in local government, who may now be reluctant to apply for the position . . .
The main problem is Mr Armstrong’s continuing deep involvement in local government in the state. The HVC’s press release acknowledges this: “Mr Armstrong . . . retains positions on a number of boards throughout Tasmania, including Chairman of the Local Government Board . . . he is also a Life Member of the Local Government Managers Australia.”
I believe these posts, as well as his recent retirement as a local government council general manager in Tasmania, position Mr Armstrong far too close to local government administration for him to be able to conduct his inquiries in a demonstrably independent manner on behalf of the council.
For example, Mr Armstrong is likely to be personally acquainted with most, if not all, local (that is, Tasmanian) applicants and possibly some of those from interstate . . .
(S)ome aspirants to the HVC position might be deterred from applying as a result of simply knowing that Mr Armstrong would be involved in the vetting process necessary to arrive at a shortlist for the post.
In none of this am I casting any aspersions on the good character of Mr Armstrong. What I am saying is that by virtue of his professional career and the positions he still holds in the local government environment, he is too close to the subject matter to have any part in the selection process.
If you check the records, you will find that both Hobart and Kingborough councils, in their recent searches for replacement GMs, employed professional recruitment agencies that were equipped to handle the necessary vetting/scanning/selection processes without the slightest suggestion of being too close to the subject matter for them to be regarded as anything but impartial and “at arm’s length”.
I have spoken with many people in the valley, on both sides of the river, and have found a lot of consternation about the council’s search process . . .
The process the council is following might well turn out to be fair; what it will not turn out to be, as things stand, is to be seen to be fair.
HVC has a reputation for secrecy and failure to consult and communicate. Unless it is told to wake up to itself, the process it is adopting on the GM issue will only serve to reinforce the perception that it is disrespectful of democratic and just process.
Public trust in government at all levels these days is at a low ebb. HVC’s behaviour does nothing to dispel this lack of trust . . .
It is imperative that the best person seeking the post of GM should be the one to get the job. Nothing about the process should discourage candidates of the highest calibre from applying for the position.
I have received emails acknowledging receipt of my letter from the Greens (federal and state) and have had emailed responses from the Local Government Division and LGAT.
Alistair Scott of the Local Government Division, wrote (inter alia):
As I have advised in other correspondence on this matter, councillors, acting collectively, are responsible for the appointment of the general manager and are expected to fulfil this responsibility diligently, with regard to due process.
The Local Government Act 1993 contains . . . provisions relating to the appointment of a general manager. These provisions are largely directory, rather than being mandatory. In my view, the process adopted to date by the Huon Valley Council . . . falls within the general directions provided by section 61 of the act. I note that whilst it is not specifically required to do so, the council has endeavoured to inform its community about the process it has adopted . . .
I note that while you state that you are not questioning the integrity of Mr (Brent) Armstrong, you question whether he is able to assist the council in a “demonstrably independent manner”. The investigation of such matters does not fall within my responsibilities . . . but I take the opportunity to stress the importance of ensuring that any comments made about an individual do not unfairly reflect on that person . . .
Allan Garcia of LGAT wrote (inter alia):
. . . The council has a legal responsibility to appoint a general manager and how it chooses to go about that process is a decision for the council. The council is under no obligation to utilise external resources at all if it believes that is appropriate. In this case the council has decided that some assistance may be required to ensure that the council is able to achieve the best result. I am unaware of the extent of Mr Armstrong’s involvement in the process and these assignments often vary. In many cases the consultant is utilised as a buffer between the applicant and the council to provide an objective response to queries raised. It reduces familiarity and assists the applicant to extract the information necessary to maximise their application.
The difficulty with any arrangement that utilises an external source is knowledge of the market and those within it. Many councils use recruitment firms that undertake regular assignments with local government. In many cases the people within those firms will know applicants through previous processes or related work with their council. I believe that the hallmark of all these people is the independence and expertise that they bring to the process and the ability to ensure that all parties are objectively dealt with. I believe that HVC has acknowledged the benefits of using external support in its process and I assume that they considered a number of factors in appointing Mr Armstrong. I would think that Mr Armstrong would be capable of providing independent judgment and will use all resources available to him to assist the council with their choice for general manager.
I would point out that the association has no role or ability to intervene or formally query any such process that a member council chooses to undertake but I am satisfied that in this case HVC has been diligent in appointing an external resource to assist with their selection and I am very certain that those applying or seeking to apply could be confident that the advice provided by Mr Armstrong would be very professional and merit based and would not be based on personalities or personal friendship/acquaintance.
Importantly, neither the LG Division response nor the LGAT response addresses the effect the format of the selection process could have on would-be applicants. Some might, mistakenly, be discouraged from applying; some might, mistakenly, be encouraged to do so.
And each response suggests that Huon Valley residents worried about the council’s GM appointment process have nowhere to look for support beyond the institution whose behaviour it is they are questioning.
This week, concerned valley residents are digesting the content of the council’s advertisement for a new general manager, two features of it especially:
— It is curious that the ad in Hobart’s Mercury is signed by the general manager, Geoff Cockerill (who is expected to leave the council by early October at the latest), whereas the ads in Launceston’s Examiner and the national newspaper, The Weekend Australian, are signed by the mayor, Robert Armstrong. The most generous explanation for this confusion would be that it was a bureaucratic stuff-up. Some see it otherwise. I have no explanation for the discrepancy but I do know that the only council staff member that the general manager cannot appoint is the person who will fill his shoes.
(Service Tasmania has a link to the council’s website, http://www.huonvalley.tas.gov.au/site/page.cfm?u=231, and the position is “Job of the week” on Local Government Employment Services (http://www.lges.com.au). Mayor Armstrong’s signature appears to be on all advertisements apart from the one in Saturday’s Mercury.)
— The advertisement for a GM on the council’s website is one of two positions advertised. The other is for a “human resources officer”. The curiosity here is that the HR job ad has an attachment that details a “position description” whereas the GM job ad does not. The GM advertisement, instead, informs interested parties that if they want to view the position description they must telephone or email the council to have it sent to them. More intriguing is that, whereas there is no caveat on the HR position description, recipients of the GM position description are warned thus:
The information contained in this e-mail and any attachments is confidential and is intended for the attention and use of the named addressee(s). This information may be subject to legal, professional or other privilege or may otherwise be protected by intellectual property laws, work product immunity or other legal rules. This information must not be disclosed to any other person without direct authority from the Legal Officer, Huon Valley Council. If you are not the intended recipient, or a person authorised to act on behalf of the intended recipient, you are not authorised to and must not disclose, copy, distribute, or retain this message or any part of it. If you receive it in error, please let us know by return email, delete it from your system and destroy any copies. Any unauthorised dissemination, copying or use will result in legal action.
So, with this dire warning ringing in my ears — and knowing that should I be an aspirant to the GM job I am warned off discussing any of the position description details with anyone — I won’t tell you what the Huon Valley Council wants its next general manager to be or do.
What is it that can be so secret about the council’s job description specifications that not even would-be applicants can show them to anyone else?
So it’s back to the seemingly endless guessing game about what is going on behind the scenes at Huon Valley Council.
Over the next week or two, it is to be hoped a few more bits of information will surface that will reassure valley residents that a decision on who is to be the next GM has not already been made.
In the meantime, I am hoping that, by the end of this sad saga of secrecy, the council will have chosen a superbly qualified and far-sighted general manager who knows that not only must the council behave properly, it must be seen to be doing so.
— 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.
The search for a new general manager for the Huon Valley Council is showing signs of evolving from a messy farce into a process with worrying implications. Indeed, some people are pondering the possibility that the council is not really searching at all.
This growing consternation has been reinforced by the pathetically drab ad the council ran at the weekend in state and national newspapers. It is so dull that only someone who has actually visited (as opposed to virtually visited) our fabulously beautiful (sadly vandalised) valley would even think twice about setting up home here, let alone getting to grips with the monumental task of guiding this sensitive region through the shoals of land planning, climate change, sea-level rise, forestry and fish-farming pollution . . .