Wanganui District Council CE Kevin Ross is stepping down after a career’s-worth of local government work. He talks with Ruth Le Pla about personalities, processes and why he’s never been bored.
Kevin Ross laughs a lot on the phone. It’s a good sign. We’re talking sight-unseen because, try as we might, we can’t get our travel arrangements to line up for us to meet in person. Phone interviews are my least favourite way of working. They run the risk of robbing both parties of the chance of a more relaxed, personal chat. But I’m more than keen to grab the chance to talk before Kevin spins out of my orbit into the big wide world beyond local government.
He sounds a tad bemused as to why I’d want to talk with him and is concerned to spread any accolades people may cast his way to others in his organisation. “Talking about myself,” he says, “is just not me.”
Still, I’m firmly convinced that a lifetime of local government work cannot go un-remarked and there’s no way he can shuffle off un-noticed into retirement. I know that’s exactly what he’d like to do but the civil defence team have already cornered him for a goodbye-Kevin session. And with incoming CE Kym Fell not due to take over until January 11, 2016 I’m betting there will be plenty more farewells to come.
Kevin Ross has been with Wanganui District Council for 26 years and with its earlier incarnation Wanganui City Council for a further nine years before that. So, strictly no slipping away un-noticed allowed.
Looking back, he’s a bit gobsmacked at how the first town clerk he ever worked for used to read every piece of correspondence before it left the building. “He used to notate if you’d spelt something wrong,” he says. “And that would have been no different than at any other council at the time. As a CE you’ve got no chance of checking correspondence now.”
Even before he first walked through the door at the then Wanganui City Council as a new graduate planner in 1980, Kevin had already worked there as a student.
“I remember we more or less closed down over Christmas time, which was not long after I’d started. We had a hell of a lot of work going on but everybody accepted you just closed down. The changes have been dramatic.”
It’s fair to say that with Whanganui town’s proximity to the river and mountains, plus a worrying smattering of earthquakes and high rainfall events, Kevin’s had more than his share of emergencies to deal with. He says he’s witnessed a huge uplift in speed and responsiveness over the years.
“Even with the recent flooding event… we used to get either a phone call or a radio call saying the river’s rising… whereas now you’ve got five videos of it, 1000 text messages and photos of everything. The pace has changed dramatically.”
CHANGES & MORE CHANGES
Thirty-five years sounds like a long time but Kevin says it’s gone by in a flash.
“Although you think you’ve had a long career in actual fact, for me, that reflects what local government has been,” he says. “It’s been so diverse and changing so much that you don’t feel that a) you’ve been stagnant or b) you’ve been in a job for a long period of time.”
A lot of this he attributes to his bosses who, over the years, have “cleverly managed” him so at the faintest whiff of him starting to get fidgety, he’d find himself enticed into a different job in council.
He directs much of his praise for this at Colin Whitlock who, himself a long-term council employee and CE, helped nurture the idea that Wanganui District Council could play a role in developing its staff.
“If I’d ever consulted a job description – which I hadn’t – I would have found he’d manoeuvred me throughout the organisation. That’s a reflection of a clever manager.
“The culture has always been that we’ve tried to be like a training institution and therefore we’ve been more flexible. We’ve had people who’ve eventually worked for the police – we’ve seconded them to the force and we’ve encouraged our staff to work in other organisations as well.”
For Kevin, the end result has been lots of careers rolled into one within the one organisation.
Such a long career at Wanganui DC means he’s been through the tumultuous times of Te Runanga Pakaitore’s much-publicised 79-day occupation of Moutoa Gardens in 1995. “That was my home during those days,” he says.
And he’s worked with five mayors: Ron Russell; Doug Turney; Chas Poynter; Michael Laws; and current mayor Annette Main. That means he’s lived through interesting times as the organisation’s ethos switched rapidly from Chas Poynter’s very consultative style to adapt to Michael Laws’ parliamentarian background with its emphasis on caucuses and manifestos.
When I press him, he says his own management style is more akin to a collaborative team-based approach.
“To work under me you won’t be told what to do. I’m not a micro-manager by any stretch of the imagination.”
He says his many years involved in sport (see box story “A good sport”) have taught him the need to value every member of a team.
“In the best teams you have a strong mix of people who are able to advocate and, I guess, the management teams that I’ve run have been very robust. We argue lots about things so it’s not an autocratic way.”
He’s also been keen to ensure the community, Wanganui District Council’s political arm and management have been closely in synch.
“I’m not sure that’s always been the favoured way you should do it but there needs to be a unique blend of working with your council.”
CLEANSING THE PALATE
So what’s next for Kevin Ross? “Nothing!” he says cheerfully.
How long does he reckon that will last? His wife, he says, reckons he’ll last about a day before he gets bored and throws himself into some new challenge.
“I’m absolutely convinced it’s going to be longer than that.”
Still, he says he’s always been passionate about the community and Whanganui so any new role he may take on – whether it be working with iwi or conservation or disabilities – will invoke that same sense of excitement and commitment.
To give himself a bit of time to draw breath, he’s put out the word that he’s taking a gap year. This 12-month palate cleanser already includes a mid-year trip to walk the Inca trail and go say howdy to the wildlife inhabitants of the Galapagos Islands.
“Who knows what I’ll come up with before then and how long doing nothing lasts with me,” he laughs.
“I’m very flexible and haven’t been chasing anything. I’m not going to another job.
“It’s interesting. When people talk about retirement they talk about moving on to a new stage of life. Most people have often got that planned and don’t want to call it retirement. I’m looking forward to refreshing and where it takes me I’m not sure. I’ve got all of those doors open and people have been talking to me. But it would need to be something I’m passionate about.”
This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.