My apologies for my outburst along with that of others in the public gallery when we chorused “Let her speak” at this month’s Huon Valley Council meeting. The “her” in question was Greens councillor Rosalie Woodruff. Our protest was because she was being talked over by Mayor Robert Armstrong when it was Woodruff who had the floor.
Armstrong was up to a tactic he often resorts to, especially when members of the public are asking, or appear about to ask, something that, in the case of the former, he doesn’t like, or, in the case of the latter, he anticipates he won’t like.
As a long-time politician, he knows full well that an interjection can throw a speaker off balance, confuse their line of argument, or, in the case of the meek, shut them up completely.
From past encounters, the mayor knows Woodruff is made of pretty stern stuff, and is not easy to stop when in full flight — so that is possibly why his outburst as she spoke was much more vehement than one of his routine, often spurious, interjections.
At the January 18 meeting, Woodruff was speaking in support of her “alternative motion” relating to council plans to build a $170,000 toilet block in Cygnet’s Loongana Park and demolish the existing one.
Armstrong wasn’t at all impressed by what he was hearing. Woodruff, though not advocating retention of the old block, was asserting that both the mayor and General Manager Glenn Doyle had made no bones about it that the old toilet block was doomed.
The mayor, above, whose epitaph is not likely to dwell on his chairmanship skills, has never been reluctant to slap down the two Greens councillors on the rare occasions they have the impertinence to interrupt another speaker.
Nor is he reluctant to pre-empt debates to ensure his bloc members get the right signal, especially on issues he senses might not go the way he wants.
When the mayor abandoned etiquette last Wednesday and started haranguing Woodruff, what at first were gasps of dismay from among the 13 people in the public gallery rose to a demand that Woodruff be allowed to speak. No insults, no bad language; just an insistent “Let her speak”.
For a moment the council chamber fell silent, then the mayor, in a surprisingly small voice, reminded us that it was he who was in charge of the meeting and that he would eject anyone who interjected from that moment on.
That was the first time in my years of regular attendance at council meetings that I have heard such a passionate outburst from the public gallery. Mostly, protests are limited to the odd stifled gasp of dismay/disbelief at a demonstration of incompetence, ignorance, arrogance . . .
Although the public gallery’s uncustomary outburst is unlikely to have been the catalyst, from that moment on last week’s meeting developed into one of the most democratic and free-thinking I have witnessed.
Councillors conducted themselves with dignity and thoughtfulness, and there was even one surprising instance of a speaker demonstrating that he has a mind of his own — all of which, of course, doesn’t mean that all will be sweetness and light at Huon Valley Council meetings from now on.
Still, there are lessons to be learned from the January 18 meeting. Among them, that: i) when councillors act outside the rules of etiquette, it is the role of the mayor, as chair, to bring them to order; ii) when the mayor does the same, it is the job of councillors to bring him to order; and iii) when the mayor or other councillors fail these tests of etiquette, it is not unreasonable for ratepayers and other valley voters to let their feelings be known, even though it means they’ll be kicked out if they persist.
And just one more lesson: when the heavy hand of factionalism is pushed aside, and councillors begin to think for themselves rather than doggedly toe the party line, the chances of much more enlightened decision-making improve immensely.
Is it too much to hope that the Huon Valley Council’s meeting on January 18 was an omen of better things to come? — Bob Hawkins