Mayor Talk: A changing of the guard


ON Sunday, May 5, Whakatāne District Council’s chief executive Stephanie O’Sullivan handed me an envelope containing her resignation letter.

She had been trying to meet up with me all week and finally caught up with me on a Sunday. So, I knew something major was up.

The Beacon carried the story of her resignation in the issue of May 8, in which all the appropriate things were said.

During her tenure at the council, she kicked numerous goals. Recalling that I wasn’t around prior to 2019, I have been reliably informed that many functions at the council are working much better today than prior to her taking the job.

Outgoing CEO: Stephanie O’Sullivan.

I guess, the resignation didn’t come as a total surprise. After five years in the job, Ms O’Sullivan received a two-year extension through to November 2025. Although there are exceptions, chief executives in many public or private organisations often move on after five or so years.

Although we will miss her, the moving on of a chief executive can be viewed in a positive light as it represents an opportunity for renewal and potentially a change of course.

The process to seek out a new chief executive kicked off the week that Ms O’Sullivan resigned. It is a process that is the responsibility of, and is managed by elected members, on behalf of the community. It is a responsibility elected members take very seriously.

The chief executive is the only person that the mayor and elected members employ. It is the chief executive that employs all other council staff members.

Section 42 of the Local Government Act of 2002 is quite explicit about the responsibilities of a chief executive and it is worth sharing some of these.

The list of responsibilities comprises nine items. The first item on that list is “implementing the decisions of the local authority”. That is, elected members decide the “what” and the chief executive and their team decide the “how”.

Also, on the list of responsibilities are “providing advice to members of the local authority and to its community boards, if any” and “ensuring the effective and efficient management of the activities of the local authority”.

In the interests of brevity, I won’t go through the entire list but rather encourage interested readers to take a peek for themselves.

Although there are many similarities between the functions of a governing board for a private company and the governing body of a local authority, there is one major difference.

The chief executive of a private company answers to shareholders while the governing body of a local authority (mayor and councillors) answers to stakeholders. Major stakeholders of course include the communities that the council serves, and this is not a minor difference.

The chief executive of a local authority is a very important role and is appropriately remunerated and therefore the process to employ a new chief executive must be very robust and generally involves many steps.

The first step usually involves the selection of an adviser and recruitment agency. Next the agency and the elected members get together to formulate an advert and role description. Because the council is the public service, roles must be advertised and the agency undertakes the advertising and marketing of the role in print and electronic media (much as a real estate agent would do).

At the same time, the agency would actively seek out potentially suitable candidates (sometimes referred to as head hunting).

Applications close for the role of the council’s new chief executive close tomorrow.

Once applications are received, the agency will compile a long list of candidates that they feel meet the job specification they were provided.

In accordance with best practice the long list is whittled down, usually by a subcommittee of the council, and a short list is compiled. All of the council will interview the final short-listed candidates.

I am constantly told that the most important relationship is that between the mayor and chief executive, and then elected members and the chief executive. So, I am very keen to ensure that we get the right person. To some extent, it is a bit like multi-dimensional matchmaking.

A chief executive has to be able to work not just with those he or she answers to, but also those he or she manages and answers for. It is as much about whether the person’s people-skills and ability to work with those they answer to, as it is about leadership and technical abilities. We are, of course, looking for a match made in heaven. Once a decision is made by council as to the selected candidate, an offer is made, and an employment contract drafted. This will require taking professional advice on the appropriateness of the remuneration package and other terms of appointment including key accountabilities.

Many folk who write in this paper, and many in the community at large, seem to think that the chief executive runs the show and this is definitely not the case.

As I have said before, elected members decide the “what” and the chief executive  (and their team) the “how”. It should not be forgotten, of course, that elected members are there to represent the community. So, indirectly, you the community are the boss of the chief executive. And it should also be mentioned that when elected members cannot get on the same page on what their agenda is then that opens things up to one being put together for them by management.

This issue about who is running the show in New Zealand Local Government circles has been questioned a lot lately. An article with the suggestive title “Lost in Bureaucracy: Is New Zealand’s Public Service a ‘Yes Minister’ Reality?” published in The Australian (March 15, 2023) by Dr Oliver Hartwich of The New Zealand Initiative (A Wellington-based Think Tank) is worth a read. Another recent article in a similar vein entitled “When unelected officials dominate the local democratic process” was published by Bryce Edwards on his Substack (June 19, 2024) and this one is also worth a gander.

The previous Labour government spent much of the past triennium exploring reforms of local government which have amounted to nothing now that we have a new administration.

Doubtless all these issues will surface again at some point. However, governments past and present continue to emphasise localism which is about local people making local decisions.

On this note, in a recent interview by Jack Tame, Anne Tolley was floating what I consider the preposterous suggestion that local government should be a hybrid affair with elected representatives and members appointed by government, something like the district health board model.

We can all see how successful the DHB model was (sarcasm). A recent survey by Sustainable BOP shows that “we the people” don’t much like having officials appointed by Wellington put in charge of our local affairs.

Democracies come in all flavours and there is plenty of democratic anxiety and discussion around what those flavours should be. The purest form of democracy is direct democracy. That is one in which all the people decide almost everything. Once upon a time that might have seemed like an unattainable ideal.

Today, however, with the internet and mobile phones, that goal is very much within reach. Just imagine that elected members want to know where the community stands on a particular issue. The council sends out an alert on your phone and the recipient is prompted to spend a few seconds answering a very specific question. Then imagine that an AI system collects the data and synthesizes the collective response into guidance for elected members. Although this approach has plenty of appeal it does raise the question of whether more engagement makes for better decision making and greater efficiency.

Although each of the many democratic variants may have flaws, it is worth remembering what Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

Local government reforms aside, we have to work with the setup we have, right here and now. Critical in the current setup is the relationship between chief executive and elected members. And central to that is the choice of a chief executive that matches our current needs. On that, rest assured that we will be doing our best.

-Victor Luca

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