What is the role of a mayor?

Would-be mayors are queuing up, 10 in Invercargill alone, to convince the voters they’re the best person for the job. But are we all clear on what that job actually entails?

Some parts of a mayor’s duties are just about unmissable because they could hardly be better illuminated. They’re expected to show up in spotlight circumstances for ceremonial duties, ribbon-cuttings, conference openings, and assorted gatherings of the great and good, to say welcoming, appreciative and encouraging things.

More awkwardly, they are expected to field questions from the news media, or the wider public, about issues that might have people feeling testy, impatient, worried or confused. Perhaps, once or twice, even celebratory.

But wait, there’s more. The less intuitive issues of governance. Controversies over the Invercargill City Council’s “leadership void”, as the independent governance review by Richard Thomson described it, under Sir Tim Shadbolt, and the “workaround” measures that the city council has been adopted, to Sir Tim’s abiding anger, have highlighted this.

Sir Tim’s hardly alone when he says that there’s no job description for a mayor. Actually there is, in the most basic sense.

It’s to provide leadership. That much, at least, is spelled out in the Local Government Act.

It breaks down into three aspects: leading communities, leading the council organization and leading planning and policy.

As for exactly what leadership entails the law doesn’t go into that.

“And that’s not bad,” says Local Government New Zealand senior policy advisor Mike Reid.

Yes there are basic expectations ranging from chairmanship to stepping up to call a state of local emergency, but for the most part the intention is to allow mayors to have their own styles, and communities to set their own expectations.

Dr Mike Reid: a greater tendency towards a more touchy-feely approach to mayoralty.

Stephen Barker/Supplied

Dr Mike Reid: a greater tendency towards a more touchy-feely approach to mayoralty.

Which is good, Reid attests, because these will be different between a behemoth organization such as Auckland and the likes of Invercargill.

It’s not just about the size of a council or community.

“Spending a lot of time in the mayor’s office may be someone’s style, where another mayor may prefer to spend a lot of time on the ground, going to (community) meetings and being in the paper,” Reid says.

New Zealand’s political landscape has at times delivered mayors with hierarchical, top-down, sometimes military approaches to authority.

But nowadays, there’s a greater tendency towards a more touchy-feely approach – mayors who lead from behind and encourage others.

It’s not as though new mayors just have to wing it, necessarily. Local Government NZ provides a guide for new mayors. It’s something Reid will soon be working hard to update for the coming intake.

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It highlights the need for them to use the popular mandate they’ve been given to build partnerships and highlight their community’s specific needs to those agencies which provide public services.

Also, to act as a force for cohesive community approaches to problems.

“The multiple problems and emerging challenges facing communities cannot be ‘fixed’ by mayors and councils working in isolation,” the guide says. “You need to build a team and identify allies – relationships are vital.

“Ask any retired mayor and they are likely to tell you that the most important working relationship they have is with their CE (chief executive).

“Where that relationship is constructive and based on trust and openness, the mayor’s performance will be significantly more successful than when this is not the case.

“Given that the CE is an employee, you are not expected to be close friends (in fact that is not at all desirable)”.

Reid likes to stand back and take a historical perspective. You can go back well over 1000 years, he says, and find that the role of mayors predates prime ministers, presidents and all other community leaders around us. Villages kept choosing someone from their number for that role.

On the other hand, times do change.

As Reid considers updates for the advice for the next intake of new mayors, he identifies areas of heightened opportunity and risk, particularly given the extent of changes being wrought by central government to the role of local authorities.

ICC chief executive Clare Hadley emphatically agrees.

“We’re seeing it right now in terms of the impact on Invercargill on 3 waters, the SIT, health, Tiwai…

Cheerleader roles have long been part of the expectations for mayoral advocacy, but by her assessment incisive political advocacy has become a stronger requirement for a district that it might once have been.

Reid thinks that’s a fair call, but he has a note of caution.

We run a real risk if we think solutions to local problems lie simply with central government, he says.

For one thing, regardless of their political colour, central governments operated well below the standard of services councils provided, and they had resisted regular reviews that had identified a need to make truly meaningful changes to local government funding.

Apart from an occasional willingness to provide one-off injections – ” they’re a bit like a drug really, hits that aren’t sustainable” – history had shown that to focus simply on trying to get Wellington to give councils more money ” takes us nowhere in the long run”.

The broad international consensus was that councils had to get much better at working in partnership with their own communities, non-governmental authorities, private capital and other local resources, bringing them together to “look after their own environment”.

Another particular challenge for incoming mayors and councils, says Reid, is to rebuild an informed sense of trust to counter “the creepy number of people holding extreme views about conspiracies undermining democracy”.

Clare Hadley: Every mayor undertakes the role differently.

Stuff

Clare Hadley: Every mayor undertakes the role differently.

Ask Hadley about whether there’s truly a job description for a mayor and she sees an assumption in that question that is worth challenging.

“I’m not sure that it is a job,” she says. “It’s a role.”

Every mayor approaches that role differently, she says.

Some, she says, have ensconced themselves in the office to an extent that challenges the chief executive in terms of the number of hours they work. Others take a hands-off role, focused on governance and high-level strategic planning and making sure the governing body is cohesive.

No matter what a mayor’s vision is, that person ultimately has a single vote and, just occasionally, a tie-breaking casting vote.

“A mayor’s vision is only a dream unless and until they get the supporting votes to turn that dream into a budget, and a plan, and a program in the long-term plan,” Hadley says. “I think that’s a critical point.”

So many people campaign on what they intend to achieve, but “you achieve nothing unless you’re able to be the coach of a team, a referee of a team – and a player with the team.”

The Remuneration Authority which makes determinations on mayors’ pay doesn’t do so on the belief that it should simply equal a full-time salary, she says.

With mayors, and other elected members, “it makes the determination on the basis that it is difficult to earn as full-time salary when you have these roles.”

Some people feel that only a candidate who doesn’t have a job can fulfill the role. Hadley thinks otherwise.

“There’s a load of mayors out who are farmers, and as far as I’m aware, farming’s a full-time job.”

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You might think there must be minimum standards that a mayor simply must satisfy under law.

Under the New Zealand system the only way they can be forced out, other than at elections, is a criminal conviction that has a sentence of more than two years, or to be identified by a couple of doctors as being effectively incapable of managing their own affairs, or failing to turn up to four meetings without having their apologies for absence accepted.

Some groups have argued that New Zealand should look at recall elections, which are no great rarity in the United States and elsewhere, in which mayors who have triggered standards of underperformance, or have been deemed a huge embarrassment to their community, could be forced into a by-election by a sufficiently large petition.

This, Reid adds, is not Local Government New Zealand policy.

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Invercargill Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt: what of the workarounds?

Robyn Edie

Invercargill Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt: what of the workarounds?

In Invercargill’s case, the “leadership void” that Thomson identified under Sir Tim, and his counter-assertions of lack of support from his own council, have been the stuff of many headlines and internal dissent.

It reached the extent that external advisors were brought in and “workarounds” were adopted in light of reports, rejected by Sir Timwho has publicly rejected criticism of his leadership

While these workarounds haven’t been tidily listed out, the council has condensed its committee structures, concentrating the heavy lifting to two committees on which all councilors sit, under different chairmanships.

This effectively means that the full council meetings chaired by Sir Tim are to a much greater extent confirming decisions already nutted out at committee level.

A “chairs group” of senior councilors was also established, and the role of the deputy mayor – a turnstile-whirring position in recent years – was clarified.

As Sir Tim puts it, the upshot has been the gradual erosion of almost all his mayoral powers, the chairs group comprises his political rivals, and he has called for a clean-out of councilors at the election, and, perhaps not quite explicitly, the replacement of the chief executive.

Asked what would happen to existing protocols and support systems in the event of a change of mayor this election, Hadley said she would expect there to be consultation with the mayor. There would be no automatic change.

“If and when the mayoralty changes it would be entirely normal for the mayor to get together with their council, meet with each councilor to hear their aims and aspirations, understand their skills, and think about who might be the deputy mayor and committee chairs.

“It might drive them to think about the structure of the business they want to see in the council, where they might want to bring focus by establishing a committee, where they might want it to be shared.

“They might then, probably talk with me about how that would work with the organization and where they want to see emphasis put.”

Sometimes there was a push for mayors to have more support – a staffed office for themselves.

However, councils worked best as one cohesive organization, she said.

“Local government is healthiest when it’s a partnership between elected members and the professional staff.

“To separate and develop a mayor’s office of its own separates that professional advice.”

Reid sums it up like this: the mayoralty is such an important role because this is the person the community so often looks to as its spokesperson. It’s a role whose job description can only be written quite broadly because each individual brings their own style, and each community its own expectations.

But with all this inherent flexibility, communities need to be clear on what they’d be getting.

“I don’t think,” says Reid, “that as voters we spend enough time quizzing our mayoral aspirants to find out what their style is going to be.”

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