Image for Huon Valley Guessing Games:  Signage of the times

Councillor Robert Armstrong exceeded his authority again recently with a performance that suggests he still doesn’t realise that being mayor of the municipality gives him no special powers to order people around or to keep non-secret matters secret.

One would have thought he might have learnt a lesson after his partisan and socially divisive chairing of the petition-generated town meeting in Cygnet in December in relation to a significant tree he had earlier voted to have destroyed (see ‘Cygnet, heal thyself’, December 14, 2010: HERE).

A couple of weeks ago, he again overstepped the line of mayoral correctness before the final meeting of the Cygnet Township Development Committee (CTDC). Just before that March 29 meeting — in what could be construed as another attempt to kill off any interest in local government that may still exist among our largely apathetic, fearful-of-authority voters — Armstrong had already sent one ratepayer packing when I arrived to listen to the proceedings. A later account from that ratepayer, Peter Dufferin, corresponds largely with my own experience — but there were different outcomes to our separate encounters with the mayor.

Just before the 5pm meeting, the mayor told Dufferin he would not be allowed to stay because the committee would be having a workshop from which the public was excluded. The mayor at times has shown a sensitivity to the public getting to know even about issues that could not possibly warrant secrecy, and this was another such issue: this time discussion about street signage for significant buildings in Cygnet.

Being a particularly polite person himself, Dufferin deferred to the mayor’s polite but insistent entreaty and withdrew. (Dufferin told me about his encounter with the mayor when I recounted to him events that occurred a few minutes after his, Dufferin’s, departure.)

When I walked into the meeting room at Cygnet Primary School, I also was approached by Mayor Armstrong. In his role as chairman of the CTDC, he quietly and politely informed me that, because the committee would be workshopping, the public would not be allowed to stay. I said something to the effect that, as a ratepayer, I was entitled to listen to the deliberations of this entirely voluntary committee.

Realising his “workshop” argument was not washing, the mayor took a new tack: the committee, he said, had decided at its previous meeting that the public would not be allowed in. Having attended that previous meeting, I had no recall of any such decision. So I informed the mayor that this argument would not wash either. Our exchange was always polite, although I do remember using (with great respect, of course) the word “obtuse”. Our encounter ended with the mayor saying “I’m not going to argue with you” and returning to the meeting table.

I remained in my seat and the meeting commenced with the mayor telling the committee that Councillor Liz Smith would be allowed to stay (because she was a councillor) but that a member of the public was present and he believed this was not appropriate. He told the committee members he would “leave it to the meeting” to decide what it wanted.

One committee member said he would prefer if the meeting had the signage discussion in private and then convey its thoughts to the public later. Another simply said I should be allowed to stay. And a third pointed to the agenda, which, he said, stated that the meeting would start at 5pm and therefore he saw no reason to exclude the public from listening to proceedings.

I sat waiting to hear my fate. I had already determined in the few moments I had had to gather my thoughts after the mayor’s surprise request that, if the meeting asked me to leave, I would do so to avoid unpleasantness but then protest later at what I would have considered yet another example of council keeping the public in the dark, even over totally non-contentious and non-confidential issues.

The committee quickly decided against the mayor’s wishes, agreed (without a motion) not to ask me to leave and got on with its business. Some time later another member of the public, Alexander Blaxland, arrived and joined me as the second spectator in the public gallery. He was unaware that the mayor would have preferred that neither of us was there.

(It now appears that Blaxland, who is showing a great deal of interest in the way Huon Valley Council operates, is to be a member of Cygnet’s Township Committee, the name by which the municipality’s five “community-engagement” committees will now be known. Council at its March meeting displayed an unseemly haste to revamp its community-engagement system despite the fact that its newly appointed community services manager, Marcia Waller, had not yet taken up her duties (she assumed them a few days later). Councillor Smith unsuccessfully moved an amendment that the reorganisation of the community-engagement system be delayed until after the new communities services manager — along with sitting members of all township development committees — had been given the opportunity to provide input on the topic. The possibility that enlightened views from the new manager and TDC members on the sensitive issue of council-community relations was not to be entertained.)

I don’t expect any but the most ardent followers of HVC happenings to still be reading by this stage of my article, but I do feel what I am saying may be of some interest to historians who eventually will delve into the affairs of the council in this era of local government ineptitude, an era that seems to have its origins in the amalgamation of councils in 1993.

Back to the mayor’s behaviour at the March 29 CTDC meeting. I believe it reasonable to suggest that Armstrong should give Dufferin a friendly call to tell him of his regret that, without good reason, he, as mayor, denied a ratepayer his democratic right to know what is going on in the community.

Last December, I asked the mayor at the HVC annual meeting to apologise to the people of the municipality for the council’s investment loss of more than $3 million (perhaps as much as $4 million). Public money should never be put into other than the most conservative of investments, which usually means simple fixed deposits with reputable banks. On that occasion, the mayor hid behind the spurious argument that the loss was now the subject of a legal action by council against the Commonwealth Bank and, therefore, it was inappropriate to offer an apology. That was another case of the mayor missing the point at issue: it was not so much that the money had been lost; my call for an apology was because council had chosen to gamble with public money by investing in exotic and speculative financial products, in that case CDOs (collateralised debt obligations). Council has since swept its investment irresponsibility under the carpet and will only tell us that it is trying to make the Commonwealth Bank responsible for what was, clearly, council culpability.

As an American president once said, “The buck stops with me”. When a mayor implies that the buck does not stop with him, maybe voters should start thinking about whether they should risk giving him another term.

Armstrong has already intimated that he intends to seek re-election in the two-yearly mayoral election this coming September. He did so by informing those who attended the opening of the Cygnet Water Mark art exhibition earlier this year that the next time he judges the “mayor’s choice” award he would seek the support of Councillors Smith and Rosalie Woodruff in making his selection. That’s confidence for you.

But back to the question of whether the public should have been excluded while Cygnet street signage was discussed. There was no decision at the January meeting of the CTDC to exclude the public from the March 29 meeting. And, not surprisingly, there is no mention in the routinely inadequate draft minutes of the March 29 meeting that it was the mayor’s wish that the public be excluded.

Perhaps next time Robert Armstrong is tempted to put his foot in his mouth, he will check more closely the limits of his authority before getting residents and ratepayers offside by issuing unilateral and anti-democratic edicts.

— 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.