GOVERNANCE & MANAGEMENT Mayoral Drive – How governance works in New Plymouth

Asked to explain his working relationship with New Plymouth District Council chief executive Rodger Kerr-Newell, mayor Peter Tennent cannot resist injecting bit of humour into the conversation. “When he first applied for the job, we passed on to Rodger simple rule,” Tennent explains. “The mayor would be doing the good news and he would be doing the bad news. I’m very comfortable with that relationship.”
Happily for both men, over the five years they’ve worked together the district has had more good news to share than bad.
“When there’s an oil crisis the world economy tends to retrench but in New Plymouth and Taranaki the opposite happens. There’s an incentive for the oil companies to hit town,” says Tennent, who is into his second term as the district’s mayor.
“There’s sustainability like never before. It used to be oil and gas and dairy, now it’s across the board. It’s exciting times to be mayor and I would think it keeps our chief executive on his toes.”
Like Taranaki surfer enjoying huge swell, the council has ridden the local economic wave with class. It is fortunate enough to have one of local government’s strongest balance sheets.
The council sold its stake in electricity and gas network company Powerco in 2004, putting the proceeds into “perpetual rates-reduction trust”. The trust’s diversified managed portfolio is now worth about $270 million. In its first year it paid out $20 million which is helping to fund council activities.
But rather than let the organisation rest on its financially sound laurels, Kerr-Newell and Tennent have raised the bar, spearheading service-focused corporate strategy which has seen customer satisfaction reach what they say are levels unprecedented for any council.
The latest council annual report records the findings of an independent customer satisfaction survey which drew ratings of 80 percent or higher for 23 out of 25 council services. Only public toilets and parking failed to reach the 80 percent mark.
Libraries, wastewater, events and “living environment” are among the categories rated in the high nineties.
And Tennent even manages to sound upbeat about parking satisfaction falling to below 60 percent. It’s function of the booming CBD, he explains, and good issue to have to solve.
Observers say the strong, complementary working relationship between Tennent and Kerr-Newell is contributing factor to the council’s vibrancy and the flow-on community buoyancy.
“We will take more positive view than others and we accept it’s bit easier here because of the history of Taranaki which has made us, not wealthy council, but one which has got little bit extra to do the really nice things,” says Kerr-Newell.
“Once you put that sort of effort in, you don’t have to drag the community along. They will join in because they’re getting the things that they think are important.”
Kerr-Newell agrees with outsiders’ observations that his style of leadership is more charismatic than the traditional model of bean-counting council CEO.
“You can exercise leadership if you have the infrastructure which supports the community’s aspirations. I see my role as ensuring infrastructure – whether it’s hard physical infrastructure like park, or psychic infrastructure, like good urban design or events in the park – ensuring that it’s there and that it’s done to an extraordinarily high standard.”
So how does vision-driven CEO manage to make progress in the politically charged environment of district council?
Robust debate plays part, says the mayor.
“We’ve got 15 around the council table – 14 and the mayor – and it’s important that all those views are expressed. If councillors were to come along and just say ‘yes’ to everything, they shouldn’t bother fronting up to work,” says Tennent.
“It’s the same with the chief executive and the mayor. It’s important that neither constrains the other. We’ve got healthy working relationship. There would be something wrong if Rodger were yes man and there would be something wrong if all my councillors were the same.”
Kerr-Newell agrees frank and open sharing of views is important.
“It would be very hard to constrain me from expressing view anyway, on good day. One of the strengths of this organisation and this community is capacity, not necessarily to agree with the other side, but at least to listen to what’s being said. The way forward is to get the ideas onto the table and then pick the best from them. I’d like to think I was right every time. Sadly I may not be. Sometimes the mayor’s right.”
Kerr-Newell says confidence is at the heart of their working relationship.
“If you’ve got people who are unsure of their role, who are bit anxious about being recognised for their title rather than their performance, then you tend to get stress across the management and governance line.
“[On the other hand] if you’ve got mayor who is confident that he’s community leader, and knows what he’s articulating, those issues don’t emerge. If one is commenting to the other about something which they think isn’t working well, the other one is likely to say ‘yes, I see your point, maybe we can do that better’, and you move along.
“So we don’t any longer see that there is very strict line [between the two roles]. It is recognition that we can both improve one another’s performance. That comes from skill, from confidence and articulating the vision.”
Kerr-Newell says, humour aside, there is truth in Tennent’s comment that the mayor delivers good news and the CEO does the bad news. “That’s what chief executives do.”
In similar way, the mayor spends the money and his job is to make it.
“The reality is it works quite well,” says Tennent.
“With local government there is very clearly line between governance and management. The rules are in place. I understand the rules. But in this community you’ve got to be careful the rules don’t get in the way of good decision sometimes.”
The pair’s shared vision is based around projecting positive message to the community and being pragmatic rather than overly bureaucratic.
Part of the trick is working hard to minimise the bureau-cracy which can be difficult given “the rules perpetually changing from our friends in Wellington”, says Tennent.
“You need good post-graduate degree these days in both economics and public administration to understand some of our [local government’s] planning documents,” says Kerr-Newell.
“Part of the role that both Peter and I have to play, in quite different ways, is making certain that the community is well enough informed to make the choices they need to make. We need to make it happen despite all the rough edges around all the bits of legislation.”
But the attitude is not one of antagonism towards the system. Instead they focus on smoothing the waters by building partnerships with relevant agencies such as the Department of Conservation and the Regional Council.
“Whether you like it or not the real world says that we are constrained by, or opportunities are created by, our friends in Wellington through legislation,” Tennent says.
“That just happens. Folk tend to moan about the RMA and other issues. That I think gives us competitive advantage because we look at ways that we can help folk through that process. It’s lot easier to develop new business in New Plymouth than anywhere else in the country. Part of that’s the community getting behind it but large part of it is Rodger’s team out there doing their darnedest to make sure that things that are good for this community can happen.”
Tennent says the council has strong relationship with Wellington and regularly wins awards for its innovative style.
Last year it picked up its second BearingPoint Innovation Awards prize in four years, this time winning the innovation and management category for its “Real Service Real Time” management system which integrates number of monitoring and service request technologies.
The council says it believes Real Service Real Time is the first fully in

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