Local Government Magazine

SOLGM president: local body election advice for officers

Barbara McKerrow: You need to be seen to be apolitical.

How can chief executives prepare for the changes that often result from local body elections? Ruth Le Pla talks with SOLGM president Barbara McKerrow about maintaining momentum.

Local Government Magazine: Some mayoral seats are likely to be strongly contested, requiring additional focus and time from an incumbent mayor wanting to stand for re-election. How can a chief executive (CE) ensure momentum is maintained on business as usual during a time of high distraction?

Barbara McKerrow: Generally speaking, in New Zealand we’re good at understanding the difference between the roles of the mayor and the CE. So the organisation continues to run business as usual and bring material through to council in its normal meeting cycle.

We put in place protocols within the organisation for the way in which we all behave as staff at election time. We separate out activities that an existing mayor or councillor might be undertaking in a campaign.

We have to be very careful that we’re not seen to be inadvertently supporting any existing elected representative in a campaign for re-election.

I’ve worked for three different mayors now and I’ve never found this difficult. That’s not to say that a much bigger council with a different kind of political environment might not find it more challenging. But the principles are exactly the same.

Do you ever see instances of the CE stepping into a hybrid ‘mayoral CE’ role in those situations? And would that be desirable?

I’ve never seen that happen. It would be inappropriate just as it would be if the players were the other way around with a mayor stepping into a hybrid CE role. It’s really important to respect the difference between the governance and the CE role.

A good CE is always going to be supporting a mayor and council in what they’re there to do. You just have to differentiate between that and something that moves more into supporting someone in their campaign or stepping into a political space that you shouldn’t be in.

As CE, it’s important that you’re seen to be apolitical. In fact when you’re heading into an election year it’s more important than normal to be seen to be apolitical.

You need to be sensible about how you and the mayor [or any other elected representative] are seen to be working together.

As CE you also have to model the behaviour you expect of your staff during the elections so we’re very clear with staff that it’s not appropriate to be seen to support any particular candidate. If people are on Facebook and have any of our elected representatives listed as a friend there, a safe thing to do during the election period would be to remove themselves from that relationship.

Social media opens up a whole new avenue for confusion at election time if it’s not thought through carefully?

Yes. What you don’t want to do is create distractions at election time. I talk about the political acumen – the political antenna – that management leaders in local government need. While on the one hand you need to be seen to be apolitical, on the other hand you have to have an acute understanding of the political environment you’re working in so you know where – and where not – to tread and how to be helpful in the background without creating distractions that are unwelcome.

What are some of the practical ways a CE can ensure complex long-term projects don’t lose momentum, or even get lost, in the transition from one set of elected members to another set post-election?

It’s about making sure that in your induction processes with your new mayor and councillors there’s an understanding of the decision-making environment they’ve entered and how the strategic planning processes of councils work.

Obviously, new mayors and councillors are keen to influence the long-term plans but you also have to have a measure of continuity. You can’t have a complete change of direction every three years.

So the CE needs to provide good opportunities for any new councillors in those early months to understand how it all works, what’s in place, how they can have influence and how they can make decisions within the legal framework of the Local Government Act.

What are some of the best ways CEs can help induct new elected members into their local authority?

As a CE it’s your role to be a key adviser to council. That’s part of our statutory role. So it’s absolutely our role to ensure there’s a good induction process for new elected members. I’d say you should really be doing it for everyone in the new term because it’s a refresh for people who have been on councils for years, and important education and support for new elected members.

New elected members are often very surprised by the complexity of the environment they find themselves in. It’s nowhere near as straightforward as they thought it would be.

The statutory role of a local authority, the way in which they have to make decisions, our regulatory environment … it can be quite overwhelming for people. From the outside looking in it looks a lot simpler than it is.

We generally start with high-level things like your legal responsibilities as a councillor, what the local government environment is like and financial governance. Health and safety legislation would also be important.

It takes an intensive period of time to go through everything.

Any other comments?

The very beginning of the term is an important time for building relationships. This is an important process for a CEO and a mayor because you’re also defining the boundaries of your roles. Sometimes you might find misunderstandings about what those boundaries are and what the powers of a mayor are versus the authority of 
a CE.

As a CE there’s a real skill in navigating those early days with your mayor and particularly with your new councillors so you establish a foundation of trust early on in the term. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to establish a foundation of both trust and respect for each other’s role because once behaviours are entrenched they’re very hard to change.

Having worked with different councils and mayors I’ve found it’s you [as CE] who has to adapt your style. You have to figure out quite quickly what the expectations of these people are, what their style is, how you’re going to establish trust with them.

There’s a level of resilience necessary to adapt yourself to changes so you don’t end up with a dysfunctional situation.

Where things go badly wrong in a council – and luckily it doesn’t happen very often – it’s usually because you haven’t been able to navigate the change effectively and people start to make assumptions about one another.So it’s a really important time – not just for the democratic process but also for ensuring you’re going to be an effective team for the next three years.

• Redacted from an interview with Barbara McKerrow.

This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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