Invercargill’s polarising deputy mayor says he would put his hand up to fill in as interim mayor if Sir Tim Shadbolt does not make it through this term. Nobby Clark opens up to Local Democracy Reporting’s Matthew Rosenberg about strained relationships at council, lessons learned through Buddhism and how his star sign affects his relationships.
It’s no coincidence there are masks hanging on Nobby Clark’s wall.
The deputy mayor of Invercargill, who’s developed a reputation as an abrasive character around the council table, says he’s been wearing one most of his life.
“Contrary to common belief, I’m quite insular. I’m quite an introvert in lots of ways, even though I portray the opposite.”
A code of conduct breach at the council over an accusation levelled at the chief executive, a widely publicised falling out with Invercargill Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt who labelled him “Brutus”, and mixed feedback in an independent review which described him as “polarising”.
These are just some of the episodes that have clouded the 69-year-old’s first term in council following 2019 election success.
But for former mailman Clark, there are no regrets swapping the open roads of his rural delivery run for the inner-city hustle of council chambers.
“I’m totally fearless now. Possibly losing my partner would be the biggest thing I’d be nervous about. I used to have a fear of heights.”
Clark is not only Sir Tim’s deputy. In many ways, he’s his antithesis.
He talks fast, not stopping to draw breath. Sir Tim’s background was rooted in activism and commune-founding, Clark describes his as “authoritarian”.
And while Sir Tim was protesting the Vietnam War in the 1970s, Clark was on the ground with the armed forces – albeit as a medic.
The reluctant deputy mayor (Clark originally turned down the offer) believes he was selected by Sir Tim because he was seen as someone who could “fire a few bullets” and push issues.
“I don’t care if other councillors like me or not. They can dislike me as much as they want, my job is to represent ratepayers,” he says.
But popular he seems to be. When he claimed his seat at the last election, he did so with the most votes out of any councillor, transitioning from external to internal dissident overnight.
Perched on a comfy chair in his Otatara home on the outskirts of Invercargill, he drops the mask on how the past two years have been.
“Stressed to the max, I am at times.
“Often you get so bloody stressed that at the end of the day all you want to do is sit in a chair and do nothing, and watch some idiot s… on TV that you don’t actually want to watch, but it winds you down.”
Clark had previously been a vocal critic of the council through his role as the spokesman of the Invercargill Ratepayers Advocacy Group, so he wasn’t expecting a smooth run upon election.
But between the widely publicised rift with Sir Tim and frustration at the delayed museum (his “deal-breaker”), he’s decided there’s no chance he will stand again.
“Council don’t have a track record of getting things done.
“If we got this museum up and running in the next three or four years, I would have had a second thought about staying on. If Tim falls over in the interim, I will put my name forward as an interim mayor to carry us through.”
Clark’s tenuous relationship with Sir Tim once again came into the spotlight last week when he publicly responded to the mayor’s challenge to a fitness duel.
Sir Tim had previously challenged all councillors over the age of 70 to a race in hopes it would dispel criticism over his health and ability to lead.
At 69, Clark felt he was close enough to put his hand up.
He says if the mayor doesn’t front up before the end of the month, he’s taking it as a default win.
“I’m picking I can probably run backwards faster than he can run forwards.”
Exercise has been Clark’s go-to for coping with stress, and an important part of his life.
He became the first person to run the 60km Kepler Track 30 times and says cycling and walking are his preferred sports following a knee injury.
Meditation has also helped him stay mentally strong, and is a practice he took up on the back of a life-changing trip to Thailand.
In the late 1980s, he and partner Karen were on holiday in Chiang Mai when he struck up a conversation with a Buddhist monk about the “ills of the world”.
During the conversation, Clark was encouraged by the monk to “think small” after becoming overwhelmed by the issue of unequal distribution.
It completely changed Clark’s perspective.
He says he tries to live a simple life and isn’t concerned about appearances, preferring to wear casual clothes to council meetings over suit and tie.
In 2004 he became just the fourth person in New Zealand to donate a kidney anonymously.
“I have a belief that our life is not about narcissistic self-development and building of assets. I never sell anything to anybody. If I don’t need it, I’ll give it away.
“My only extravagance is that I’ve got 10 pairs of running shoes.”
Not only has Clark worn many shoes over the course of his life, he’s also worn many hats.
Following his stint in the army, he took a job as a prison worker and followed that up with an inspection job for the Department of Labour which lasted 10 years.
But after the visit to Thailand, he had a change of heart and decided he wanted to work in social services.
He became a trainer at the Department of Social Welfare, a corporate manager at Child Youth and Family (now Oranga Tamariki), took a role at Stopping Violence Southland, and ended up an area manager for IHC.
It was a bumpy ride at times.
“It’s fair to say I’ve rocked the boat in many of those caring areas. I’ve been dismissed twice out of senior jobs. I’ve challenged those dismissals, once through the Employment Court.
“Both occasions I won, and both occasions I lost a lot of money. Financially bloody bad news. Because you win but you lose.”
He then bought into a cleaning business before taking up a job as a rural delivery driver.
With an interest in local government bubbling under the surface, it was the support of people who said he could no longer “sit outside and bash away at them [councillors]” that pushed him to join the ranks of those he’d previously criticised.
What will be the next job to grace Clark’s ever-growing CV?
Retirement, and spending more time with his 16 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
He also wants to take more trips away in his campervan.
His partner of 27 years, Karen, has designated their mobile home as a space where he’s not allowed to talk about anything council-related, and they try to get away for a few days every third weekend.
But even outside the mayoral chambers, debate can swirl, with Clark conceding the two are virtually opposites.
“I’m a Virgo, so very prescriptive, very outcome-oriented. Don’t like people shifting the goalposts, which my partner does.”
He makes a high pitched whistling noise followed by a “plop”.
“It takes forever for the stone to drop… never ask a Taurus to make a quick decision.”
Clark says he’s covered in tattoos which mean different things to him, including one on his arm which reads “tomorrow never comes”.
“There’s no such thing as tomorrow for Virgos. Every day you’re in the present, so always live for the present,” he says.
Clark does look ahead, however, even if it is just a little bit.
He’s open about being worn down by the job and quashes the possibility of future mayoral aspirations.
His defining feature is his lack of fear. The “abrasive” figure, as described by the Thomson Report, isn’t phased about how others see him.
The first day on the job was like “a wolf coming into the sheep pack”, he says.
As long as he’s got a seat at the council, he vows to be a voice for “tangible outcomes”, even if he rubs a few people up the wrong way in the process.
“Councillors have said ‘when are you going to donate the other kidney?”‘