Mike Wilson: from HVC website, HERE

There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
— Leonard Cohen

Testing, just testing! And the Huon Valley Council’s mayor didn’t like it. Councillor Mike Wilson, the “independent” candidate who challenged Mayor Robert Armstrong at the October election — and came last of three on a platform of “It’s time for change” — was pushing for change again at council’s December monthly meeting.

Wilson’s motion proposed something that should have been de rigueur for years: the right of individual councillors to make public statements — “Through you, Mr Mayor”, of course — about developments within their allocated portfolios.

The Wilson motion read: “That a report be prepared for the January 2012 meeting which provides advice and direction to council on the ability of individual portfolio holders to make public statements and issue media releases (on behalf of the council) on issues relating to their respective portfolio areas.”

Debate on Wilson’s suggestion was a cocktail of fun and farce. The mayor’s body language and remarks made it obvious he sensed, generally, a challenge to his authority; and, specifically, to his control of print media releases, in which he usually prattles on in strings of high-flown platitudes that display far more elegance than his truncated verbal utterances at open council meetings.

Wilson wasted no time in reassuring the mayor (as did others) that the authority and respect of the council’s top elected member was in no way being challenged; and that he was not advocating that any statement should go out without the blessing of the mayor and general manager. He was “purely asking for a report”, he said. Wilson’s later observation that council was “not a one-man band” brought sharp reproof from His Worship — despite the council having looked to have been that way for too many years.

Deputy mayor Gary Doyle didn’t think it was a staff job to produce a report, so he moved an amendment that called for a “workshop” (code for “Don’t let the public know what we are saying to each other”). The public is barred from workshops; but, under the Local Government Act, if councillors workshopped issues while sitting as “council committees” (as is the practice in neighbouring Kingborough), the public could listen in from the gallery.

Councillor Tony Duggan said staff needed “more direction” to prepare a report on the pros and cons of portfolio holders making statements.

Mayor Armstrong grumbled that he already had the authority to allow portfolio holders to say things publicly. This writer cannot recall him exercising this mayoral authority. He certainly missed his opportunity to do so in the days following the revelation, in late 2008, of the loss of about $4 million of ratepayers’ money through investments in risky financial products. It would have been a lot easier on him then to have left all the talking to Duggan, who held the Finance portfolio at the time the investments were made and when the losses, adding up to about a third of council’s total cash assets, came to light.

(The mayor brags today that the council is in a solid financial situation. That may be so, but, whichever way you look at it, council no longer has the $4 million it invested so foolishly — “gambled away” one candidate alleged in the October elections. Nor does it have the bank interest it could have been earning on it as a virtually risk-free fixed deposit. Simply put, the man who presided over the loss of $4 million, Robert Armstrong, still has not apologised for the loss. That he is still on council is a measure of just how forgiving Old Huon is toward their real estate salesman mayor.)

Liz Smith, who ran second to Armstrong in the mayoral race, thought staff had “sufficient information already to make decisions”; and fellow Green Rosalie Woodruff reasoned that the issues were “pretty straightforward”.

Bruce Heron, deposed in October as deputy mayor by Gary Doyle, sometimes doesn’t seem to appreciate that the mayor expects him to toe the party line. “We can do [read ‘debate’] it now,” said Heron. The mayor was having none of that nonsense; for goodness’ sake, there were about 20 people watching from the public gallery.

The Wilson motion’s intent was all far too radical for Armstrong and his Huon Valley Futures Team, which, though it still control’s council decisions, is now only sure of five votes when the whip comes out rather than the six (frequently seven) it could automatically muster before the October elections.

The elections saw a slashing of the mayor’s support (but still enough votes to keep him in the top job); and the defeat of HV Futures Team stalwart Ian Paul, who has been replaced by forest industry worker Peter Pepper, who ran as an independent while endorsing Wilson’s advertising material. The result is a now three-faction council:

— In the mayor’s HV Futures Team corner are Doyle, Heron, Duggan and Rohan Gudden, a man of very few words.

— The Independent faction comprises Wilson — who was in the mayor’s camp during the 2009 elections but is now looking more and more his own man and pressing on with his “It’s time for change” message — and council returnee Pepper. (The independent faction’s arrival doesn’t mean there will no longer be 7-2 votes going the old brigade’s way, but the cracks in the ranks of the deniers that change is a-coming — even inevitable — are widening.)

— Greens Liz Smith and Rosalie Woodruff, the third faction, continue to remind fellow councillors that the way to (and of) good government is to adhere to proper process. Despite their best efforts, the good sense they contribute to council debate is usually ignored. However — since Glenn Doyle took over as GM two-and-a-half years ago; and possibly as a result of a recent anti-discrimination action by Smith — they are no longer subject to the sniping, jeering and rolling-of-eyes that were common in the council chamber through much of the Noughties. And changes have been achieved, including in the allocation of councillor responsibilities.

The result of the debate stemming from Wilson’s temerarious motion on portfolio-holder statements was 5-4 in favour of the HV Team’s “workshopping” amendment. So this means the public will continue to be kept in the dark about the deliberations of their nine elected representatives.

The sight of Wilson and Pepper voting with the Greens against the workshopping amendment was not good news for Mayor Armstrong. It served to reinforce what must be his dawning recognition that, in the new make-up of council, just one rebel in the ranks of his team could mean a vote going the other way should the Independents and Greens find themselves on common ground. It is possible that Heron, having been unceremoniously dumped by voters as deputy mayor after only a single two-year term, may occasionally find himself considering his options.

The Huon Valley Council is still a bastion against constructive change; and it remains deeply rooted in the ways of yesterday (mainly in its addiction to secretive behaviour and its habit, especially when acting as a planning authority, of ignoring staff advice and planning guidelines). It also often displays a sad lack of foresight and an appreciation of the benefits of hindsight. In general, it remains bogged in a state of denial of inevitable environmental, social and economic change, in the Huon Valley and out there in the wider world.

Optimists may interpret the evolution of council from two to three factions as a ray of hope that “change”, if only of the kind Mike Wilson has been banging on about for the past year, might yet be on its way. Pessimists, reasonably so, are likely to continue to wallow in their gloom. — Bob Hawkins