A pair of independent observers say Invercargill City Council is on the right track, but one issue remains. The council is still working around Sir Tim Shadbolt. Matthew Rosenberg reports.
A PAINTING of Invercargill Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt hanging on the wall leading to the council chambers is prophetic, according to an independent observer tasked with helping the council improve governance in the deep south.
The piece, titled Seriously Tim, has hung in an Invercargill City Council stairwell since 2013 when it was bought for $7000 from Cromwell-based artist Deidre Copeland.
It shows the nine-time Invercargill mayor pulling away a mask of his smiling face to reveal a pensive expression underneath.
“It’s quite prophetic of the issues the organisation is facing. There’s two Tims,” Lindsay McKenzie says.
In December, the council appointed Mr McKenzie as an independent observer alongside Jeff Grant on the back of concerns raised by the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) and the Thomson report.
Under extraordinary circumstances, Mr Grant and Mr McKenzie were given a budget of $730,000 for up to 18 months of work. Their job description: to improve governance.
Tension at council was at an all-time high, and their appointment followed a damning independent review which took particular aim at the mayor, his deputy, and the chief executive.
‘‘He [Sir Tim] is increasingly unable to deliver on the kind of leadership that might unite a struggling Council,” Mr Thomson wrote at the time, highlighting a leadership ‘vacuum’ with Sir Tim at the helm.
Six months on, Mr Grant and Mr Thomson provide a glowing report card of council as a whole and a mixed one of the man who heads it up — New Zealand’s longest serving mayor.
Despite ongoing difficulties with Sir Tim, they say council has ploughed ahead with its goal of turning dysfunction into results.
“We’re not sitting in a room now with a bunch of councillors who are just bloody slaying each other,” Mr Grant says.
“They’ve taken the responsibility … and they’ve been delivering.”
The pair put the turnaround to two things — a chief executive who’s appointed sound senior management, and councillors realising they have an obligation to step up and perform for their community.
“I think they’ve done really well, and we’ve been impressed… councillors focus on issues rather than the individuals,” Mr Grant says.
It’s a much brighter picture than what Mr Thomson painted in November when he highlighted a total lack of working relationship between Sir Tim and chief executive Clare Hadley, a “polarising” deputy mayor in Nobby Clark, and a feeling among councillors that the community perceives they can’t work together.
The observers now describe the working relationship between the deputy mayor and chief executive as ‘‘pretty impressive’’, and say councillors are getting on with the job at hand.
Mr Thomson did concede the city was “generally well run” by a council that, despite its struggles, was not materially better or worse than other councils.
And Mr Grant backs that up, saying there isn’t anything happening in the building that would concern him as a ratepayer in terms of what council is trying to achieve.
Part of the reason for that is because others have stepped up around Sir Tim and plugged the hole.
“Having been a chief executive in local government, I kind of know what the statutory obligations on a mayor are, and Tim doesn’t operate in that space,” Mr McKenzie says.
“That’s created pressure for others to fill that void, and that’s proven to be challenging for folk.”
It’s a mixed review. Mr Grant says Sir Tim is still engaging, and describes him as someone he enjoys spending time with.
Mr McKenzie points out he’s been ‘‘resistant’’ to their presence and doesn’t meet what’s required for the position.
“The things that are evident to me are evident to anybody that observes a council meeting.
He clearly struggles with the agenda. It’s observable,” Mr McKenzie says.
“Our task is to support others to ensure the business gets done.”
While it wasn’t within the council’s “remit” to confront the mayor’s capacity directly, Mr McKenzie said they were providing “arrangements, frameworks, and mechanisms as work arounds”.
He also believed Sir Tim had become more engaged and supportive of the independent observers’ role in the past few weeks and described him as “quite reflective”.
What’s next for the observers?
Although their contracts have provision for up to 18 months of work, both have indicated it’s time for them to peel back responsibilities.
At this point, they’ve come in massively under the $730,000 that was originally budgeted for their stint down south (Grant drives one hour from Balfour for meetings while Mr McKenzie, an ex-Environment Southland chief executive, flies in from Nelson).
At the end of May, the pair had billed the council a little more than $55,000 for a total of 400 hours, or 50 full days of work.
Mr Grant says they’ve expressed to Hadley that they see themselves having a reduced role going forward, with hopes they can be out before the end of the year.
“As a farmer, I’d call it ‘weaning the flock’.”
Mr McKenzie says the biggest challenge ahead for council will be delivering on the projects they’ve approved in their Long Term Plan. He believes they’ve got the skillset, but enlisting consultants and contractors can be a challenge for a small southern city.
“An organisation that’s been under siege, like Invercargill [City Council] has been, can get down.
“We’ve been reminding them they are doing bloody well, so they don’t get into that dark space.”
- Matthew Rosenberg is the Local Democracy Reporter