Good chemistry, frequent communication and helping a new mayor get to grips with the practicalities of their new role go a long way towards creating a strong working relationship between mayor and chief executive. But how much can they smooth troubled waters if a new mayor or councillor actively campaigned against the CE or their staff? Ruth Le Pla asked Brendan Duffy and Wilma Falconer.
Brendan Duffy readily concedes that he knew little about many of the intricacies of working in local government before he first took office as mayor of Horowhenua back in 2004. That was despite already having been on council for nine years. And it was despite coming to the mayor’s role already well armed with a sense of the personalities, agendas and working styles of many of the people with whom he was about to engage.
Transitioning from being a councillor to a mayor was like starting again, he says.
“I had no understanding of the complexities,” he admits. “I said that at the time. I’d never done a CEO review. I’d never sat down with a CEO and talked strategy and direction. I’d never been responsible for looking after 10 other councillors with the different dynamics that they all had that I had to contend with. I’d never done anything around communication – how I could regularly communicate with my elected members. I had no understanding about the dynamic with the CEO in great detail.”
Adding fuel to the fire, shortly after he took office, Horowhenua District Council had to appoint a new CEO.
“That whole process of interviewing, of analysing and determining what we thought was right for us… it was a huge challenge,” says Brendan.
His candour is welcome in an environment where the steep learning curve awaiting any new mayor is often glossed over in public.
Yet, some mayoral candidates and potential councillors actively and very publicly campaign against their incumbent CE and / or council officers. In the lead-up to local body elections officers’ levels of competence, their abilities to cope with change, and their sense of urgency and priorities are called into question.
Brendan says our model of democracy – with its three-yearly cycle of potential change at the governance level – challenges everyone to then find common ground.
In an email to me Brendan states emphatically that he “never, ever, ever” campaigned against his CE or council staff.
He also adds that he was extraordinarily lucky in his transition from councillor to mayor as his organisation is relatively small. Small or not, in his 12 years as mayor of Horowhenua District Council Brendan went on to work with three CEs: Greg Boyle, David Ward and then current incumbent David Clapperton.
He says that, as mayor, he tried to handle any differences of opinion or approach with each CE by finding “realistic common ground” and agreeing on boundaries understood by both parties.
He doesn’t seem to have dropped much momentum since losing the mayoral race to Michael Feyen at last November’s local body elections. Among his many current roles, he’s been appointed by the Minister of Local Government as a temporary commissioner on the Local Government Commission for a year to hear the Wairarapa proposal.
And he also runs workshops for councils across the country on code of conduct, elected member ethics, formal meeting engagement and partnering in standing orders presentations.
Wilma Falconer is MD of Project Partners, has a long track record in public sector communications and is co-presenting with Brendan on mayoral / CE relationships at an upcoming SOLGM Chief Executives Forum later this month.
She notes that the specifics of local government can mean that even those people who come to a mayoral role loaded with experience as an MP or minister in central government can struggle to adjust.
“They arrive with a real sense of expectation about their role, how things work and the level of support that they’re used to. Suddenly that’s quite different when you come to local government. There’s not a huge machinery of parliament and ministerial services to support you.”
Clearly, induction programmes can go some of the way to helping get mayoral newbies up to speed. It would be fair to say that these are being promoted and delivered in a much more focused and targeted way than in the past.
Both LGNZ and SOLGM provided programmes following last year’s local body elections. LGNZ’s tools and training arm EquiP, for example, took the opportunity to also slip in programmes for existing members who may want to further upskill themselves.
NO NAMES, NO PACK-DRILL
Such are the sensitivities of local government that both Wilma and Brendan are very reluctant to give examples of councils where the mayoral / CE relationship is working well – let alone those that are not. Curiously, they argue that by providing good examples, others may be conspicuous by their absence. They also note that they haven’t gained the go-ahead from councils to name them.
Brendan says the “general working of the machine” means people outside council won’t get to see much of what’s going on inside it. He does eventually offer that in times of catastrophe an example of a good relationship will rise to the fore.
“Where you do see it is on those occasions like Kaikoura recently. You saw Hawke’s Bay not that long ago… obviously we saw Christchurch. Those are the examples where that relationship between mayor and CE is extremely strong.”
Brendan adds, “Sadly, there are a number of less than ideal relationships but that’s the model of democracy which challenges us to find common ground.”
Wilma says good chemistry between a mayor and CE often underpins the best relationships. For those councils where such chemistry doesn’t exist naturally, there are a variety of ways in which CEs and mayors can consciously create strong working bonds.
TALK TALK TALK
Frequent communication is high on her list of priorities. Wilma says in those relationships that are working well the mayor and CE see each other often.
There’s no one ideal way to play this.
“Being able to see each other almost every day is a good thing even if you’re just passing each other in the corridors,” says Wilma. “But having the ability to be available to talk and not putting any of those process and support issues in the way is perfect – you’re part of a team. It’s like any organisation: where the governance is close to the management that’s great.”
Brendan agrees this is really important and calls on both parties to be flexible to find the best way that works for them.
“I’ve had three different CEs and they all had entirely different expectations about how they wanted to communicate with me, which we agreed on and respected,” he says.
“I had a CE who every time they walked past the door would come in and say good day. I had another CE who would walk past a dozen times and not say a word. And it didn’t matter because we had arranged how we would have our formal communication. We have to respect that as well.”
To Wilma’s mind, this is about clarifying each party’s expectations. “The way you work together is as important an expectation as the expectations around the direction of the organisation, policies and work programmes.”
Things go awry, she says, when a mayor or CE starts to withdraw to fixate solely on their own role, and they don’t talk about issues in common that need to be addressed.
It’s also important to get the hygiene factors of support right, she says. The ideal is to create an organisation with an appropriate level of support for elected members from staff, infrastructure, administration and systems. This can be as simple as showing elected members where the printer is – “the stuff that drives people mad”.
That, in turn, eliminates any underlying concern about minor irritations so the conversation is then around what really matters.
This is above and beyond induction programmes, she says, which quite often tend to be an event.
“It’s not until people are in their role doing their work that they realise they don’t actually know how the machinery operates or what the processes are. So it’s important that it’s not just an induction programme but there is quality support available to the mayor and all the other elected officials to support them in their role all the time.”
Brendan says the hallmark of a good working relationship is “trust, trust and trust”. “Be adult, be respectful, build trust, understand boundaries and respect each other’s role.”
In his view, the vast majority of councils across New Zealand have good relationships between their mayors, chairs and CEs.
“But there will be occasions where it doesn’t work and when it doesn’t, it impacts significantly on that organisation – not just on the mayor and CE but on the whole management team and all staff. You can have 150 or 250 employees getting a bad vibe coming down the food chain and that’s not good for a community.
“That’s why it’s so important that if things do go a bit awry that significant effort goes into getting them back on track.”
This article was first published in the April 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.