Image for Huon council short-shrifts former mayor’s plea to pay his legal costs ...

First published March 29

Huon Valley Guessing Games It is not too late for Huon Valley Council’s (nine-councillors-in-one) commissioner, Adriana Taylor, to change her mind and give ex-mayor Peter Coad the justice he deserves.

The staff recommendation for today’s (March 29) council meeting (agenda item 15.013/17) is that council not pay the $40,000 that Coad, as mayor, spent on legal advice (1) defending himself (and his reputation), and (2) meeting his responsibilities as mayor of a council that, one way and another, made it impossible for him to effectively carry out his duties.

An example of the kind of treatment Coad, as mayor, had to face was the publication in August last year — in a document freely available to the public — of a report by the general manager that accused him of 15 instances of “non-compliance” with Ministerial Direction 3 issued by Local Government Minister Gutwein on June 16, 2016. Amazingly, Coad says he was not aware of those charges until after the report had been made available to the public.

COMMISSIONER Taylor wrote to Coad on March 21 to say that council would not pay his legal costs. Her letter to Coad concludes: “I have considered all advice and have determined that the expenses were incurred personally by you and were not expenses incurred on behalf of the council. Therefore I am not in a position to approve the reimbursement of the legal expenses incurred by yourself.”

Coad, commenting on Taylor’s letter, said: “The commissioner’s legal advice is correct in that I was required to have the approval of council to pay my legal costs. The missing element here was that the council was dysfunctional and I was always going to be denied access to the payment of the mayor’s legal costs. The commissioner has the authority to rectify this injustice, but has chosen not to do so.”

LIZ SMITH, for 15 years an HVC councillor (and always an advocate for good governance and transparency) until all nine councillors were sacked last October, was the author of the petition calling for payment of Coad’s legal costs that was presented to council’s February 22 meeting.

On Monday (March 27), she issued a statement in response to agenda item 15.013/17. In it, she says:

“I am very disappointed by the report, which does not, in my view, provide adequate reasons why the council should not pay Peter Coad’s legal costs. There are many questions that arise from it.

“The legal costs were incurred because the elected mayor, Peter Coad, was trying to achieve good governance standards at the council. He was acting in the best interests of the Huon Valley community, as Mayor, not as a private individual. As listed in the petition, the legal costs of the general manager for her complaint against the mayor in August 2015 were fully paid, as well as legal costs incurred by other councillors who commissioned legal services without the authority of council.

“The report implies that the costs will not be paid because the mayor, unlike the general manager, was not an employee of the council. After I lodged complaints with the Anti-Discrimination Commission in 2009 and 2011, [later GM] Simone Watson argued that the Anti-Discrimination Act did not apply because I was not an employee of the council and councillors were not covered by the Act. This view was not supported by the Anti-Discrimination Commission, which accepted the complaints.”

EX-MAYOR COAD has long asserted that at least one legal bill incurred by the action of three councillors was paid by HVC. He said this week that, in Taylor’s letter to him of January 3 this year, she said that “council has not paid any expenses that may have been incurred by any individual councillor”.

Coad recalled that then-councillor Mike Wilson, at the August 31, 2016, ordinary meeting of council, said that an informal (therefore, unofficial) meeting of the HVC Governance Committee in August 2015 had given him the authority to engage an independent secretary to attend a meeting on August 26, 2015.

“As chairman of the Governance Committee,” Coad said, “I was not formally advised or requested by any councillor to conduct any out-of-session Governance Committee meeting in accordance with section 5 of the Local Government (Meeting Procedures) Regulations 2015.

“I believe this purported Governance Committee meeting had no legal status and was nothing more than a meeting of individual councillors. Any decisions made at that meeting on behalf of council would, in my view, be illegal . . .  How can there be a legal meeting when I, as the chairman of the Governance Committee, was not formally advised, invited or informed of its purpose. The meeting in my view was not called in accordance with the requirements of the Local Government Act.”

Coad said: “The Governance Committee is only an advisory committee to council and has no authority or delegation from council to make any formal decisions to engage legal advice or expend council funds.

“The [Local Government] Minister and the Director of Local Government were advised that the alleged Governance Committee meeting, convened by Councillors Wilson, [Pav] Ruzicka and [Ken] Studley, was possibly illegal. Both the Minister and the HVC commissioner have, I believe, acted inappropriately by not taking action on what is a clear possible breach of the Local Government Act by councillors acting outside their authority with the express purpose to support the GM in her formal complaint against the mayor.”

Coad also said: “Councillor Wilson advised council on August 31, 2016, that the account for secretarial services that he personally engaged from a legal firm was to be forwarded to the deputy mayor, who would in turn supply the account to council (as the mayor and the general manager were conflicted in this matter).

“As the former mayor, I am not aware of any formal resolution of council for the payment of these legal expenses incurred by Councillors Wilson, Studley and Ruzicka.”

“The commissioner has advised me . . .  that she cannot reply as to the legality of these issues surrounding the alleged out-of-session Governance Committee meeting as she was not there at the time. The documentation that is held by council confirms that the commissioner is not prepared to form a view as to the status of the out-of-session Governance Committee meeting . . .

“Notwithstanding Councillor Wilson’s comments that the legal accounts would not be forwarded to myself or the general manager, the HVC commissioner has confirmed in writing that the account was authorised and approved by the general manager.

“I believe Councillor Wilson was correct in assessment of the conflicts held by the GM, yet the GM chose to authorise the payments of the legal advice commissioned by Councillors Wilson, Studley and Ruzicka. Clearly, council has paid for these legal expenses of these individual councillors.”

In relation to the still secret Page Seager report in response to the Gutwein board of inquiry report, Coad says the commissioner had advised him that the general manager engaged Page Seager on December 14, 2015, under her delegation but did not say for what purpose. “My legal adviser,” he said, “was advised by the GM that she engaged Page Seager on behalf of council on March 17, 2016, to prepare a response to the board of inquiry report.

“I believe the responses received from the commissioner raise many more questions . . .  Why councillors Wilson, Studley and Ruzicka engaged a solicitor to take minutes and cost ratepayers thousands of dollars?

“Given that it is now confirmed that Page Seager acted for the GM in her formal complaint against the mayor, why was Page Seager commissioned by Councillors Wilson, Ruzicka and Studley to attend the ordinary meeting of council on August 26, 2015, knowing that Page Seager had assisted the GM in her formal complaint against the mayor?”

Coad said: “How can the commissioner let these questions go unanswered? Who are being protected from investigation and for what purpose? Why was the mayor kept in the dark by these councillors about their actions in calling an out-of-session Governance Committee meeting? Why are the minister and the commissioner refusing to investigate these matters?

Of the staff recommendation re Coad’s legal expenses, it is not unreasonable to imagine that HVC management — which the Gutwein board of inquiry acknowledged was hostile to Coad throughout his two years as mayor — is still not well-disposed towards him.

Taylor is in possession of adequate evidence that Coad always acted with dignity and propriety throughout the two years he coped with both management’s lack of co-operation and with the hostility of a group of councillors.

More importantly, she should be aware that, if justice is to be done — and, equally important, that it is seen to be done — Coad must have his legal expenses paid by council, just as the legal expenses were paid of those arrayed against him.

It is known that legal costs relating to a personal grievance of the GM — in relation to an issue the GM felt had arisen between her and Tasmanian Times and myself — were paid for by the council. It is also known that, simultaneously, the same circumstances applied to a grievance of one of council’s “executive” managers.

There is nothing in the Local Government Act that I can spot that prevents Taylor from rejecting the staff recommendation and approving payment of the $40,000 or so claimed by Coad. It is a sum that pales into insignificance when compared with how much public money council (under the chairmanship of now-MLC Robert Armstrong) lost as a result of unwisely investing about $4 million in financial products that in no way could be considered “low risk”. To my knowledge, no one at the time (circa 2008) or since has been subject to anything resembling disciplinary action, even if only for failing to put public money where it should be invested — in simple, non-risk reputable bank term deposits or government bonds.

In fact, the legal costs Coad ran up — defending himself and working to keep council responsible — fall far short of legal fees ($54,000) that council paid on just one commission for a report from lawyers Page Seager that clearly was designed to tip the findings of the Gutwein board of inquiry in favour of council management — and against Coad. That report has never been officially released to be read by those who paid for it — the people.

There are more examples of what I saw as extravagant waste by a council that, to my mind, has been less than competent for years — certainly since I started paying rates to it in 2008 — and highly secretive.

COMMISSIONER TAYLOR says she has to responsibly protect public monies. That’s true. If HVC is to regain the trust of a public that is, at best, still widely chary of its behaviour, she also has to be responsible for seeing that not only is Huon Valley Council proper in all its areas of operation, it must be seen to be proper.

Sadly, since its sacking last October, HVC has, to my mind, still not done enough for the public to be sure that it is behaving well.

For example, for all I know, the trio settled on earlier this year to select HVC’s next GM may have been truly independent of mind. But it certainly did not look “independent” to me. That selection panel — comprising Taylor (Gutwein’s troubleshooter at HVC), the CEO of the Local Government Association of Tasmania, and a former GM of Hobart City Council and long a pillar of the Southern Tasmanian local-government establishment — did not meet my standards of true disinterest.

THE MORE I ponder it, the less I am inclined to see substance in Commissioner Taylor’s assertion earlier this year that the best route to council reconstruction would be for it to remain under her control until the October 2018 council elections. Although that would be the ideal way for council to stabilise itself and give the new GM a chance to get his administration competently operational, I’m now having doubts that will be the reality. Several Huon Valley local government observers seem to have the idea that there will be an election in October this year.

For example, why would wannabe mayor Mike Wilson be so actively campaigning for an election that he appears to believe is imminent? His almost weekly caricaturish adverts in the Huon Valley News suggests he knows something we don’t.

Although he has not attended a council meeting since the first that Taylor chaired (October last), it is rumoured that he has been politically active behind the scenes and has been in communication with council and state government. (In fact, apart from Smith, who attends all open meetings, no other ex-councillor has turned up at HVC’s monthly meetings since October.)

MEANWHILE, Geoffrey Swan, campaigner for a healthy Russell River ( ), is having his own tussle with council over the non-inclusion in the minutes of a question he asked at the February 22 meeting. On March 26, he wrote to council, saying, inter alia:

“I again refer you to my email sent to your attention March 1,, 2017. Apart from an acknowledgement of receipt, I have heard nothing further from your office. No responses to any of my comments below.

“I have again looked at the minutes online as of today’s date . . .  Once more I seek your revision of the minutes to FULLY include my public question — not an abridged version of my full question . . .  My formal request is that the minutes be amended to include a written copy of my question . . .  Regrettably, in hindsight, because I forwarded my question in advance, I left it in your hands, however you chose not to read out the question. Therefore there is now no public record of my question in either the existing minutes or indeed the audio recording.

“I look forward to . . .  an amendment to the minutes, which, as they stand, do not truly reflect my public question.”

Swan’s complaint brings us back to issues of transparency and competence. Serious question marks remain about whether HVC as it is now operating has what it takes to achieve the reforms so necessary for public confidence to be restored. HVC is still emitting signals that — having been stopped in its tracks and apparently shaken up by Minister Gutwein’s sacking decision —it will be allowed, before not too long, to resume normal operations with very little changes from the status quo ante.

HVC’S STAFF recommendation not to pay Coad’s legal fees sits, unhappily, well with the state’s two-centuries-old reputation for governments contemptuous of justice and fair play. I suppose, if Tasmanians apathetically continue to allow government at all levels to behave as it pleases, that’s all they deserve.

It would be so simple for Commissioner Taylor, to pay ex-mayor Peter Coad what he is due. It would put to rest an unsavoury HVC episode. I can’t imagine Minister Gutwein would want the stench of this issue still hanging around come next year’s state election. — Bob Hawkins*

*Bob Hawkins, a journalist since the mid-1950s, has been covering the affairs of Huon Valley Council for more than seven years. His collected work is HERE