Image for Huon Valley Guessing Games: A question of governance

The Huon Valley’s best-known secret men’s club — the controlling Futures Team on the local council — is likely to consolidate its reputation for playing its cards close to the chest at a “special” council meeting tonight (Monday November 21). The meeting is to decide the membership of the council’s new “Governance Committee”.

This committee is to be instituted under Section 24 of the Local Government Act 1993, which means it will conduct its affairs in secret; and, if my reading of the meeting’s documents on the Huon Valley Council website is accurate, it seems the committee need never have to tell the public about the decisions it makes or, possibly, even the topics it discusses.

The people of the Huon Valley are constantly reminded by Mayor Robert Armstrong — especially at local government election time — that the council’s controlling group is “not political”. However, having had to watch Armstrong in action for longer than I care to remember, it seems he does not have a realistic grasp of the meaning of “political”; and nor does he seem to have much of a grasp of what valley ratepayers and residents can reasonably expect of him in terms of leadership.

A man of few public words (except when council’s spin doctor taps out its media releases), Armstrong looks set to try to avoid making a tough decision at tonight’s meeting. Documents on the HVC website suggest that the mayor has decided against sticking strictly with the terms of reference (ToR) that are meant to govern the process required for deciding the membership of the Governance Committee.

The ToR say that it is the job of the mayor to “undertake an assessment of the nominations received and provide recommendations to the council for the appointment of members”.  The mayor, according to his own report (http://www.huonvalley.tas.gov.au/site/page.cfm?u=819, see November_Special_Meeting_Reports.pdf), has chosen to dodge the job of recommending which three of the five nominees he thinks should be appointed to the Governance Committee, with Armstrong in the chair.

“Assessment” surely makes it incumbent upon the mayor to be the person who recommends the names of those he feels should make up the committee. “Assessment” does not add up to allowing the mayor the liberty of handing such a delicate decision to a secret vote of all nine councillors.

Armstrong suggests in his third-person report that he was not up to the task of deciding who he wants on the committee. He writes: “Whilst the ToR suggest the mayor assess the applications received and provide a report to the council, this has proved to be a challenging task. The only guidance provided to the mayor in the assessment of applications received is to take account of the need for equitable geographical representation on the committee.”

So it seems Armstrong is about to fail his first serious challenge as a newly re-elected mayor by abdicating his responsibility to make a decision of his own and ordering a secret ballot involving all councillors. Not only that, he is recommending that the secret-ballot papers be “destroyed” immediately after the council has been advised by the “returning officer” (a council staff member) of the ballot outcome.

Yet again a situation has arisen at Huonville — as it did when council went through the process of appointing a general manager more than two years ago — in which a process of appointment, even though it might be quite proper, might not earn the distinction of being seen to be proper.

There are salient elements in the terms of reference council decided on for its Governance Committee at its November 9 meeting:

— Sub-section (b) in ‘Section 4 Committee Membership’ states: “For the purposes of appointing member councillors, the mayor shall, following each ordinary election, invite councillors to nominate for the committee. The mayor is to undertake an assessment of the nominations received and provide recommendations (my italics) to the council for the appointment of members. In undertaking the assessment, the mayor is to take into account geographical considerations (my italics).” (How there can be geographical considerations via a secret vote is beyond me.)

— Sub-section b) in ‘Section 8 Meetings’ states: “Meetings of the committee are closed to the public.”

— ‘Section 15 Reporting’ states, inter alia, “. . . Matters discussed in the closed session of the meeting must only be reported to the closed session of the council meeting . . .” (Considering that all Governance Committee meetings will be closed to the public, this could mean the public will not even be allowed to know what topics have been discussed by the committee.)

The mayor’s Governance Committee recommendation (15.035/11*A) for tonight’s meeting includes:

— “b) As the number of nominations for committee membership exceeds the number of vacancies, a ballot be undertaken to elect the members of the Governance Committee.

— “c) The ballot be conducted on the following basis:
“i. The ballot be conducted as a secret ballot where councillors vote on provided ballot papers.
“ii. To be valid, a vote must be cast as follows: 3 for most favoured candidate; 2 for next favoured candidate; 1 for next favoured candidate.
“iii. The votes cast will be counted and accumulated against each candidate.
“iv. The three councillors achieving the highest number of accumulated vote totals be determined as elected as members to the committee . . .
“v. In the event of a tied vote such that election of the three committee members cannot be determined then: 1. the councillors achieving the most accumulated votes will be determined as elected as members to the committee, and; 2. an election will be held a second time only in respect of the candidates who have tied . . .
“vii. The ballot papers be destroyed following the election of the members.

— “d) The manager planning and legal services be appointed as returning officer to conduct the ballot . . .”

Councillors who have nominated themselves for appointment to the committee are:

— The Futures Team’s new deputy mayor, Gary Doyle (who ousted fellow Futures Team councillor Bruce Heron from this job in the October election).

— Futures Team member Tony Duggan (who held the finance portfolio on council in the period in which just short of $4 million — nearly a third of council’s cash assets — was lost as a result of being invested by council in exotic financial products (CDOs); who has been a member of the council’s Finance and Risk Management Committee since it was set up after the council’s investment loss; and was a member of the now-defunct Executive Committee).

— Futures Team member Rohan Gudden (who, now 25, has been a councillor for two years; and who, by saying very little at public council meetings, has not revealed much about his philosophical leanings other than that he is in favour of development).

— Independent Mike Wilson (who stood for mayor in the October council election; and who has been chairman of the Finance and Risk Management Committee since soon after it was set up to ensure council pursued a more conservative investment policy).

—  The Greens’ Liz Smith (who was re-elected to council and came second in the mayoral ballot in the October council election).

How the secret voting for the three positions to be filled on the Governance Committee will play out is almost entirely in the hands of the five Futures Team councillors. Almost certainly this group has the voting power to ensure at least three FT members on the four-memer GC (including Armstrong) and possibly all four.

A big question is, has the Futures Team, to avoid charges of factional discrimination, decided that it will countenance an outsider — Wilson or Smith (or perhaps both)  — on the committee, or will it take the hard line and go for the lot? At least this question should have been answered by the time tonight’s meeting is over.

As to the immediate destruction of ballot papers after the count, surely, for posterity’s sake, they should be retained. It’s reasonable that the way in which votes are directed should be kept confidential — but destruction of the ballot papers? (Yet, when I think about it, it is not surprising: recording the stuff of history, for better or worse, has not been a strong point among the people of the Huon Valley over the centuries — well, at least not until a lot of outsiders rolled in and found that their new home has an amazingly colourful history and every reason to save what still exists in the form of documentation, photographs, illustrations and personal memories. Fortunately now, museums are a growth industry valley-wide.)

There’s no point in appealing to the Local Government Division of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, or to the Local Government Association of Tasmania, about goings-on at the HVC. They’ll just write back and tell you that how the council conducts its administrative affairs is its own business.

As long as a heavy veil of secrecy continues to shroud so much of HVC affairs, many in the valley will remain convinced that council’s performance falls far short of even acceptable. Much of the blame for this situation must lie with the Local Government Act 1993, which makes it almost impossible for elected representatives of the people to speak their mind without running foul of “code of conduct” rules.

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 friend of Huon Valley Greens councillors Liz Smith and Rosalie Woodruff.