Mick Lester is on a mission to nurture the next generation of people willing to enter local government. He tells Ruth Le Pla how it’s going.
Catching up with Mick Lester is a bit like trying to pin down a kangaroo. I’d lucked a meeting with him in Wellington a while back and since then he’s been bouncing round the country doing what he does best: supporting community board members in what, for many, are their first steps into local government.
When later we talk on the phone he’d been in Kaitaia in the Far North two weeks before, then in Mataura in Southland. Two weeks afterwards he heads off to Christchurch, then he’s in Rotorua, then the Hutt and goodness knows where he’ll pop up next.
He wears quite a few hats, to put it mildly. For the past 14 years he’s been a Hastings District Council councillor and on its rural community board. For the past four years, he’s also been the zone three representative for the nationwide Community Board Executive Committee and he’s now in his second term as its chair.
The committee, which acts in an advisory capacity to LGNZ’s National Council, is charged with advocating in favour of community boards and promoting best practice amongst them.
It’s these latter hats, of course, that keep him on the road so much. “It’s a lot of travelling and time,” he says in his understated way.
He says he’s not sure exactly how many community board members there are in total throughout the country “but the legislation says you must have a minimum of four and a maximum of 12 members and we’ve got at the moment, I think, 106 community boards”.
They stretch from Kaitaia in the north right down south to Bluff. And, given his travels, Mick must be a familiar face to most.
“Really, I’m in a supporting role,” he says. “It’s about educating community boards as to what they can do because these people are absolutely at the grassroots level of local government.
“Many people don’t realise board members get an absolute minimal pay,” he says. “A lot of them are getting $2000 a year and they’re putting in an awful lot of time for that.”
He says it’s “not even worth thinking about” what this would average out to on an hourly basis. “It would be way, way, way below the minimum wage. It’s essentially an elected voluntary role.”
For the record, Mick’s own role as chair of the community boards executive is totally voluntary. He estimates he dedicates a day a week to the role on average and, apart from some travel expenses, doesn’t get recompensed.
He sees serving on community boards as an apprenticeship for potential councillors. And he’s concerned about the various barriers placed in the way of people who may be willing to take such first steps into the sector.
He argues that if we’re to encourage more 25- to 35-year-olds to step forward, for instance, we need to see the world through their eyes. And that must include acknowledging they’re likely to be using their income as their sole means of support. “Therefore it’s only people who are retired or who can afford to do it that are prepared to put their name forward to be elected as community board members.”
With the rate of pay for councillors nationwide not exactly sky-high, the same argument rings true higher up the tree, of course.
To Mick’s mind, a lot depends on the timing of meetings. “I’m continually encouraging people to think carefully about the occupations, age and commitment of people to their outside jobs other than community boards,” he says, “and to hold meetings at times when it’s convenient for them to be there.”
It can be as simple as scheduling get-togethers for evenings rather than afternoons when most people would be at work.
“The complication is that to have a good community board you have to have the support of your mayor, the CEO and the officers within the council. And the difficulty with having meetings later is that they’re outside the working hours of the officers.”
He’s “absolutely” seeing some – although not all – councils grasp that point and show a willingness to change.
The desire to encourage and include younger people is also increasingly evident at the nationwide community board conferences which are held every alternate year. At the last big get-together, held in Wanaka in 2013, Mick included a healthy number of younger speakers. “They were marked 12 out of 10,” he says, “while old grey-headed people like me got much lower marks in the assessment at the end of the conference.
“It just works because they have new ideas. They see things from the perspective of their age and, to my mind, they are the future. We have to have fresh ideas to enthuse young people to go through what I consider to be the apprenticeship for being councillors.”
Expect more of the same at the next conference which will be held in the Bay of Islands in May this year. Still, although he doesn’t have exact numbers, Mick’s well aware he’s currently working with a “very, very small pool” of young people to date. Members have since been asking if the two-yearly national community board conferences could happen every year. “But we’d need a lot more finance to do that,” he says.
“Many councils around the country are very supportive of their boards,” he says, “but nonetheless it’s a matter of the amount of finance councils have available to allocate to boards – and especially to allocate to board members to go to a conference.”
On the whole, he sees mayors, CEOs and officers as “incredibly supportive” of their community boards because they see the benefit of what the boards can do at the grassroots level in their communities.
“It all comes down to the old thing. I accentuate that it’s a matter of establishing trust between the board and council, and between the board and officers whose job it is to look after them. In most cases there’s one officer in council who is responsible for being the go-between between council and the boards. So you’ve got to have trust.”