Image for Huon Valley Guessing Games:  A council culture in ferment

Glenn Doyle, then new in the job as Huon Valley Council general manager, said he was determined to change the culture of the council. Now, two years on, it is clear that he has (i) welded together a staff team that is prepared to work their butts off coping with myriad and varied chores; and (ii), despite the dead hand of the controlling Futures Group, he has taken grip of a dysfunctional council and led it a good way along the tortuous path to long-overdue cultural change.

The agenda and attachments for tonight’s monthly meeting (September 12) are evidence of the huge amount of research, assessment, analysis and sheer hard-slog legwork required to manage the mountain of documentation necessary to keep the council functioning. Before Doyle took command, much of this material either didn’t exist or was not available to the public.

The agenda alone for tonight’s meeting runs to 148 A4 pages; the seven attachments total 441 pages; and the four Planning Authority documents 153. The public does not have access to the attachments that support closed-council business, but, with three “closed” items listed, they too might run to a hundred or so pages. With this pile of paper before them, the nine councillors will consider a long list of mostly staff-generated recommendations.

All of this hard labour means that, in the weeks between council meetings — during which all other matters have to be attended to, including organising and conducting councillor workshops — the workload pressure never comes off at HVC’s Huonville HQ. That the attachments, by and large, are fairly well edited is also impressive.

And other features impress. Since Doyle’s takeover, councillors have been bombarded with an avalanche of reports — annual plans, five-year plans, structure plans, strategic plans, a 10-year financial plan, a tourism accommodation prospectus, a 10-year new-asset program . . . — some of which, for some reason or another, had been long awaited.

Council staff, who have always impressed with their good manners when dealing with the public, seem more relaxed these days. I always get courteous service when paying bills (phoning in to make a credit-card payment to HVC is almost unbelievably simple and speedy), asking questions or making requests for help.

And there is another welcome recent change. Council vehicles have started appearing with HVC livery. Previously one could not pick the difference between a council vehicle and any other unbranded vehicle.

Is it too much to believe that this change may herald yet a further lifting of the veil of secrecy that still shrouds much of council’s operations? (What HVC livery also means is that council drivers can no longer sport their favourite decals or stickers, especially if they happen to imply any kind of partisanship.)

Possibly GM Doyle’s most impressive achievement has been to engender at least a veneer of mutual respect among councillors when they assemble before the gaze of the public gallery. Over the years, public observers have witnessed examples of bullying, derisory, sarcastic and just plain rude behaviour. Most of that has disappeared since Doyle has been sitting at the left hand of real estate salesman Mayor Robert Armstrong.

Transparent disdain for the Greens has mostly gone. Nowadays, apart from an occasional barb — one councillor suggesting recently (was it revealingly?) that he changes his underpants less often than the Greens change their minds — councillors appear to be under good-behaviour orders. One could even imagine someone has been lecturing them on standards of etiquette required of people in local government.

What GM Doyle’s presence has not achieved is a level of constructive debate at council meetings. While the two Greens work hard to spark intelligent discussion, and offer ideas for tackling emerging valley challenges, the mayor’s men usually manage to negate (or reconstruct as their own) sensible suggestions from what they see as an irritant opposition.

The trouble with, and the great weakness of, the performance of the Huon Valley Council lies in the controlling group’s secretive approach. While politicians at federal and state level use parliament as a forum in which to express their philosophy (well, at least their party line), in the council chamber at Huonville those who control the decision-making have decided, it seems, to say as little as possible in public. I have seen some councillors get through a meeting uttering nothing more than an occasional “Aye”; and, if I had bothered to count them, I think one councillor over two years may not have managed much more than a couple of dozen sentences.

A problem here is the inadequacy of council minutes. Although they now indicate which way each councillor voted (the minutes once didn’t even do that), they do not reveal anything of why a vote was cast in the way it was. (Councillors’ reasons for dissenting can range from a vote against only because of a small detail to a total rejection of a motion’s intent.) This is a good argument for council meetings to be recorded, if only for posterity — and so that curious observers, like myself, can check that they got a quote just right.

Almost every issue of significance at HVC is “workshopped” prior to monthly meetings, with no member of the public allowed to sit in unless specifically invited. And often, at those meetings, if a serious debate appears to be taking shape, the mayor, from the chair, steps in with expressions such as “We’ve workshopped this well”. Is that code for “Time to put it to the vote”?

Public gallery observers rarely learn how or why council decisions are arrived at. Many local governments around Australia conduct almost all of their business in full public view. This means that councillors, having been popularly elected, have to demonstrate they’re worth their salt. At Kingborough Council interested members of the public are allowed to attend the deliberations of councillor committees. HVC doesn’t have councillor committees.

It would be a revealing exercise to allow the public a chance to observe the quality of councillor performance in workshops when issues of substance are being considered. Whereas council can deny the public access to workshops, under the Local Government Act the public can only be denied access to councillor committees when an issue can be defined as “closed council” business.

Poor decisions by the Huon Valley Council were not the exception in the first decade of the 21st century, yet few of the elected faces have changed. Creation of councillor committees at HVC would allow the public to observe councillors doing the work that underpins much decision-making. Such a move would give us a better idea of whether a councillor is up to the job and deserves our votes.

Bob Hawkins is a Huon Valley ratepayer and an advocate for transparency in all democratic institutions. He is not a member of a political organisation. He makes no secret of the fact that he is a close friend of Greens councillor Liz Smith. Though not disputing that his opinions may be prejudiced, he believes they are not without substance.