Image for Public loss, private gain?

THE JOKE that is the Huon Valley Council’s “consultation and communications strategy” got sicker at its June meeting, when management acknowledged that 1000 square metres of public open space in Cygnet had been surreptitiously reduced to 200 square metres.

The full circumstances of this “minor-amendment” transaction on a subdivision — which also allowed a house block to be added and the route of a public footpath to be changed and its width narrowed — remain unclear.

However, the secretly executed minor amendment highlights just what can happen in a council whose elected members heap huge amounts of “delegated authority” on its management. Nevertheless, seven of the nine councillors continue to act as if they are quite content with the way delegated authority stands.

Adding farce to yet another bout of HV Council shenanigans at the June open council meeting was the image of general manager Glenn Doyle admitting that a mistake had been made and that he would ensure such things didn’t happen again. He didn’t say whether the minor-amendment changes could or would be reversed.

In wording hard to comprehend, he explained that council, in fact, had not lost the public open space (POS) on the subdivision (even though it no longer had it); it had, he said, simply been reduced by 80% in exchange for a payment from the developer. Obviously, a case of now you see it, now you don’t.

Piecing together the circumstances of this latest sorry saga of council secrecy has not been easy. I trust council will point out any errors in my account of what has happened — and what is continuing to happen — in relation to the subdivision that now scars the hillside below the Catholic cemetery on the western side of Mary Street adjacent to the Charlton Street T-junction.

— In February 2008, council approved an application for the subdivision of about 3 hectares of land, on which there would be 24 house lots, 1000 square metres of POS and a public footpath, heading roughly north in the direction of the Catholic school, near the high (western) boundary of the subdivision. For the development to proceed, DIER authority was required for the T-junction to be changed to a roundabout.

— Nothing happened and interested observers began to think the development time allowed (two years) had lapsed. Not so. It has since come to light that, some time just before the development period expired, the developer was granted an extension — on delegated authority and with no consultation with councillors. Mayor Robert Armstrong, of course, would have been informed, because it is his job, as the council’s leader, to keep scrupulous tabs on all council business. (I cannot find anything in the local government act that says the GM has to tell council what he does under his delegated authorities. I hope I have simply failed to be diligent enough to find it.)

— It appears fairly certain that, with the probable exception of the mayor, no member of the Cygnet Township Development Committee (CTDC) was told formally or informally about the minor amendment that had been allowed. Neither the mayor nor council staff mentioned it at either the April or June meeting of the CTDC.

— It is certain that many people in Cygnet very concerned that once again their council has failed to take them into their confidence on a matter that has great aesthetic and public amenities relevance. I have signed a petition for presentation to the developer requesting that it hand back the 800 square metres of POS it bought from the council; that the route of the footpath be reconsidered; and that the fate of the two mature trees that mark the southern approach to Cygnet’s main thoroughfare, Mary Street, be reconsidered. I have also signed a petition with similar sentiments for presentation to council.

—Township Development Committee member Pat Synge, in the June 17 issue of The Cygnet & Channel Classifieds, wrote, inter alia: “There has never been any discussion about the public open space next to the roundabout. In fact, I don’t think any of the committee were really aware of it and Huon Valley Council has never included it on the agenda for discussion.” Synge, who said in his letter that he had asked council to contract an arborist to assess the condition of the eucalypt, says council has agreed to this request. Synge is now looking at all aspects of the minor amendment rather than just the fate of the trees.

— Marion Woodnutt, a Cygnet resident and a long-time advocate for retention of the trees, wrote to the Classifieds in the July 1 issue: “When I first discovered that the trees were to be cut down, I objected and organised a petition, which was sent to council, all to no avail.” She said Cygnet had a special charm, which is why people love to come, either to live or visit. “We do not want another built-up area like Kingston . . . the new development . . . is not allowing for the 5 per cent of public land required (in a subdivision) . . . Via an amendment this allocation . . . has been reduced to a nature strip (and) existing trees will be removed . . . What will visitors see as they enter Cygnet from the south? More imitation trees (lollipop trees) with a conglomeration of new buildings behind them virtually in full view?” (Council has planted other “lollipop” trees all along Mary Street, the trunks of which are too short to stop people’s heads brushing their lollipop crowns, well, at least the crowns of those that have not already been beheaded by vandals. A Cygnet native once told me “the place for trees is in the bush”.)

— The two “opposition” councillors, Greens Liz Smith and Rosalie Woodruff, both locals, are understood to be opposed to the removal of the trees; concerned about the reduction of the POS; and opposed to the re-routing of the public footpath within the subdivision. (The new and narrower footpath has a gradient that would make it difficult to negotiate by the elderly and those with physical disabilities.) Neither councillor is commenting apart from saying they are studying the issue.

— The land clawed back from the people of Cygnet (for a payment by the developer of about $8000) has allowed for an extra house block on the subdivision, a block that would have an asking price upwards of $60,000. (With Cygnet now inundated with subdivisions, the market for “suburban” house blocks remains slow. It appears that this lovely township — which has fine examples of colonial and early 20th-century architecture, and which deserves heritage status — is to be disfigured for years to come by broad patches of under-sold land developments as a consequence of unfettered subdivision.)

— The minor-amendment issue is about to be discussed at a public meeting of concerned residents.

Various aspects of this minor-amendment episode have stuck in the craw of a Cygnet public that has been kept in the dark for years by its local council. Public pressure a few years back forced council to start a “public consultation” process, from which emerged, last year, a document with the promising title Huon Valley Council Consultation & Communications Strategy.

Its spinmeister verbiage, sloppy editing and promise of “trust and predictability” have done little to convince council critics that anything has changed.

At the council’s April meeting, Smith asked if delegated authority would be reviewed because it was a new council, it had a new general manager and it had new councillors. Her question was brushed aside, a member of the controlling Huon Valley team saying it had been decided at a workshop not to review delegated authority. (The public are not allowed to sit in on council workshops.)

Smith’s next move, at the May meeting of council, was a motion calling for a review of delegated authority. The Huon Valley Team was ready for this: her motion was thrown out and the matter was referred to a workshop, to be held later this month.

Give GM Doyle his due: he has made it clear he has no problems about a review of his delegated-authority powers; and he did point out at the April meeting that decisions cannot be made at workshops. So, it is to be hoped that the delegated-authority question, after being mulled over at a workshop, will eventually come back for an airing at open council.

The questions now are whether the controversy in Cygnet over the subdivision will prompt the seven Huon Valley Team members to seriously review delegated authority; and whether it will convince the mayor that council must at last get seriously sincere about “consultation and communication”, especially on sensitive municipality issues.

It will be surprising if they do. More likely, it will be secret men’s business as usual at Huon Valley Council. And development — sustainable or not — at any cost.

— 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.