The main focuses of the criticism have been:

— The GM appointment process.
— The council’s apparent loss of about $4 million of the roughly $12 million it had invested at the beginning of the 2008-09 financial year.
— The hiding of the contents of a Civic Mutual Plus “risk assessment audit” report, which, getting only a 77% rating — who knows on what measure? — may or may not be critical of the council’s investment practice/policy.
— The council’s continuing failure to meet its legal obligation to have a current “strategic plan”.
— A refusal to freely make available the contents of its 2009-10 budget (this last issue has now been partly resolved — see below).

The council has aggravated the dissatisfaction it has fomented by maintaining a cloak of secrecy that leaves not only the public in the dark but councillors too — not that some of them seem to mind, most of them over the past year having blithely supported measures that keep the public in the dark on a range of topics.

Often the fog of obfuscation and stonewalling that fills the council chamber during open council meetings leaves Huonville’s famous pea-soupers looking more like light morning mists.

And council management, which seems to dictate policy rather than help councillors to create it, appears to have completely forgotten that local government should serve the public in an open and forthright fashion rather than remain, wherever possible, Kremlin-mute on matters of substance.

A consequence of management rather than councillors dictating policy and practice will be apparent when councillors are asked to vote on a motion to adopt the “annual plan” (required by law). It seems all rather arse-about-face: what was council doing striking a rate and passing a budget without having an annual plan on which its estimates are based? (One wonders, by the way, how the council is getting away with still not having a “strategic plan” — also a legal requirement — which, one would imagine, would be helpful in drafting an annual plan.)

The approval of the annual plan a month or so after the passing of the budget does not appear to be contrary to local government law, but it is worth noting that Hobart City and Kingborough councils deal with these two matters simultaneously. When the law’s an ass, it seems we can rely on Huon Valley Council to interpret it accurately. 

(By the way, the council’s 2009-10 “Ratepayers’ Information Guide” brochure does not tell ratepayers how much their rates have been increased. For the record, it is something over 3% — and might have been a lot less if council had had about $4 million more to play with.)

There is of course, from the council’s spin masters, a regular torrent of “happy” news, most announced by the mayor, who has looked to be in campaign mode most of this year. (Local government elections are in October and there is no suggestion he wants to give up his mayoral duties.)

Just occasionally, a ray of hope pierces the gloom before usually being extinguished by yet another act of deceit. This week, council management shifted its ground on its earlier decision to make it as difficult as possible to acquire a copy of the 2009-10 budget details (even to the extent of slapping a $50 price tag on them). It now seems a version (heavily abridged) will be put on line.

For the moment, I’m too pooped by my latest guessing game stint to wade through the maze that is http://www.huonvalley.tas.gov.au to see if, by some remote chance, an abridged budget document is already there.

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.

BOB HAWKINS
Pressure is growing on the Tasmanian Government to look more closely into the behaviour of the Huon Valley Council. While head-in-the-sand big-party politicians and government bureaucrats have been deflecting or waving away complaints about the council from several sources, increasingly focused criticism is thought to be forcing a realisation that, sooner or later, the state will have no choice but to intervene.

Leaks at state and local level are hinting at a high-echelon stirring of consciousness about the seriousness of the problem.  One informed source suggests a senior Labor politician acknowledges there has been a worsening of the problem. Another source says there is concern among senior council staff, especially on the question of the process the council has adopted for the selection of a new general manager. And a seasoned observer of council behaviour is rumoured to have challenged Huon Valley mayor Robert Armstrong to change the council’s “culture of secrecy” and the way it deals with ratepayers.