According to the agenda for tonight’s meeting, Wilson will move that the closed-council update called for at the July meeting, “having considered privacy and confidentiality issues under Regulation 15(9) of the Local Government (Meetings Procedures) Regulations 2005, be dealt with in open council” (my emphasis).

Dillon’s July motion had its origin as an “amendment” to a motion by Greens councillor Liz Smith. Her unsuccessful motion read: “That the name and current position and/or most recent relevant experience of each candidate who applies for the position of general manager at the Huon Valley Council be provided, in confidence, to all members of the recruitment panel (and/or selection committee).”


Smith, who is a member of the five-councillor recruitment panel (the other members are mayor Robert Armstrong and councillors Dillon, Wilson and Bruce Heron), lodged her July motion after being fobbed off at the June meeting when she asked, in a question on notice, for the same information.

It seems likely that Smith’s two open-council attempts to get the information she desired were made as a consequence of her failure to get the information she wanted in closed council or in sessions of the confidential recruitment panel meetings — if, in fact, there had been any before the July 8 monthly council meeting. (Applications for the GM job closed on July 10, so there probably had been no meeting of the recruitment panel up to that date.)

As usual, I’m just guessing, which is about all one can do when trying to fathom the workings of the valley’s secretive municipal authority.

While there are council observers in the valley that feel the council’s “recruitment” process is a charade, Wilson’s strategy is intriguing: last month, he supported Dillon’s call for a closed-council update on the recruitment panel’s progress; tonight, he wants the update discussed in open council.

Every member of the recruitment panel, by law, is sworn to secrecy about its deliberations (and so they should be), and not so much as a whisper has emerged from council about how many applicants its drab advertisements attracted. And it is still not known whether Smith has got the answer to the question she has been posing.

If the number of applicants for the recent Hobart City and Kingborough council GM searches are anything to go by (I believe about 100 for Hobart and about 60 for Kingborough), the top Huon Valley local government job should have attracted 50 or so.

In these times of global warming, climate change, sea-level rise and peak oil worries, the Huon Valley has to be one of the most attractive retreats from the woes of our troubled planet. So the chance to become council GM in such an idyllic corner of the continent should have been very tempting to many of the nation’s most outstanding local government and other administrators.

But back to this new mood of openness that Wilson’s motion tonight seems to be hinting at. Might it have anything to do with the departure of the council’s longtime GM?

Wilson certainly has a record at election time of calling for elected representatives to take greater control of council policy. He is talking that way today, and was in 2005, when he was re-elected as a councillor and ran second in the vote for mayor.

Just before the 2005 election, Wilson was quoted in The Mercury as saying: “It’s the ratepayers who elect their councillors to do a job for them and they then employ a council manager to manage the day-to-day running of their business, not the other way around.” (Wilson, in 2005, had abandoned mayor Armstrong’s “Huon Futures Group” and was campaigning as an independent.)

For all of his advocacy of councillor control of council, Wilson, last December, along with councillors Dillon, Doyle, Duggan, Heron and Paul, signed a letter to the Huon Valley News and The Mercury that castigated Smith for having suggested that “the council is basically run by the staff and that most councillors go along with it”. The six signatories said Smith’s statement was “offensive to all her fellow councillors”.

Few close observers of council would disagree with Smith’s assertion that, at the Huon Valley Council offices, management rules and that councillors have allowed themselves to become a virtual rubber stamp for policy dictated by staff. The council has been run for many years by a management that has generated most policy, largely as a result of the GM having been delegated authority in so many areas of council business.

At one council meeting this year, when someone asked who it was who had authority to invest the council’s cash, the GM said the authority was his. That came out at a time when council was beginning to be seriously embarrassed by the probings (still going on) by ratepayers concerned that something like $4 million of their council’s money had gone up in the smoke of the bonfire that collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) became.

The Huon Valley’s elected local government representatives in the weeks ahead have their best opportunity in years to claw back control of council. Wilson’s motion at tonight’s meeting could be a sign that change is in the air. But no one should get too excited yet.

Close observers of council see the GM selection process as a charade and believe the person for the job was decided before the recruitment process commenced. They argue that, if the identity of the next GM were not known, why else would council be steaming ahead with a string of new policy documents? And why are senior staff positions being advertised? These actions hardly amount to a show of respect for an unknown GM, someone who might have ideas of their own.

Of course, it could just be that councillors have at last decided to assert their authority after years of going along with management.

Debate at council tonight will be interesting, not so much for the vote on Wilson’s motion but for the content of the discussion that follows should his motion be successful.

Valley residents have a right to know how much interest there has been in the top council position (at least they should be given a rough idea of the number of applicants); and whether all councillors are united in their determination that the best person for the top job will get it.

BOB HAWKINS
Councillor Mike Wilson has an intriguing motion on the agenda for Huon Valley Council’s monthly meeting tonight (Wednesday, August 12). At council’s July 8 meeting, Wilson voted for a successful motion by deputy mayor Laurie Dillon calling for a “closed-council” update “on the progress and process of the appointment” of a successor to long-time general manager Geoff Cockerill, whose 15-plus years at council ended on July 31.