Rotorua Lakes Council mayor Steve Chadwick is on a mission to work more closely with her community. She talks with Ruth Le Pla about devolving political control and her strong belief in working through others to get things done.
I’m not in the habit of kissing mayors. So I was a bit surprised when Steve Chadwick bounced up and gave me a big mayoral smacker on the cheek the minute we met. Then she scooted me down the hallway to see some new artwork and back to her mayoral lair which, decked out in shades of Kermit, overlooks Rotorua’s Government Gardens. And I realise to my horror I’ve probably been one of those strange people she can see from her window acting out for family photos and generally misbehaving in an oldie-does-selfie kind of a way. Such shame.
The mayor of Rotorua Lakes Council lives life at a whirlwind pace and makes no apologies for it.
Newly elected into her role two years ago, her feet had hardly hit the ground before she sent chief executive Geoff Williams a letter of expectations. She’s well aware that’s quite an unusual step to take. But she reckons he at least took some comfort from having a very clear direction from her.
Then they got together pretty pronto so she could talk about the culture change that she wanted to see. Local residents and business people had told her they wanted more engagement, transparency, focus on retiring debt and, in essence, a more customer-centric approach, she says. “And I wasn’t going to muck around.”
Steve says she doesn’t take her mandate lightly. “I know I’ve got a window in which to manage change, get it consolidated and then mentor a new generation to come through.”
To this day she still meets with Geoff at 7.30 every morning. “I get up so early anyway.” Deputy mayor Dave Donaldson joins them and Steve is keen to note she and Dave are there from a governance perspective. “We don’t tell Geoff what to do. But, boy, we’ve unplugged the dyke because we can see where the obstacles were.”
She even has a little file called “discuss with Geoff” which she cheerfully waves at me in evidence. “Everything goes into it,” she says, “and I think ‘we’ll have a discussion about that’.”
The early morning starts may stem from her former life as a nurse and midwife – although Steve strikes me as a terminally bouncy person anyway.
Certainly, she’s been criticised for the cracking pace of change she’s set at Rotorua Lakes Council. A big part of that – and one she’s really proud of – is the introduction of a series of portfolios through which community reps work alongside elected officials to come up with strategies to deliver change. The portfolios have got reassuringly real-sounding names like “people”, “inner city revitalisation” and “creative communities”. They’re all about doing things “with” or “through” the community, rather than “to” them. And these people have got real money to spend.
Those of a more cautious and less trusting nature may worry these portfolios could start the tail wagging the dog. As one of my brothers likes to say at high-stakes moments of family tension, what could possibly go wrong?
“But you manage expectations,” says Steve. “You say, ‘this is the budget we’ve got. You can do this but you might need to spread that over three years’. The public accepts that.”
Anyway, as she points out, when you know something has got the support of the community – like the green corridor through the central city – and there’s a whole strategy group behind it, such plans are “rather compelling” when they come to a council meeting.
She admits some people got a bit unsettled by the shift to portfolios. “I think it was the opening of the old way of doing things. That total opening. I did think we had to smash it apart and rebuild it and that’s what we’ve done.”
I get the feeling such criticism would be water off a duck’s back, anyway. Steve is from a large and creative Hastings family. One sister’s now a historic gardener and another was teaching English as a second language in Australia to Aboriginal children. The brothers, including painter Dick Frizzell, variously cover art, draughtsmanship, architecture and building.
“Growing up in small town Hastings we were a round peg in a square hole, really, or the other way round. We always did things a bit differently.”
On top of that, Steve has, of course, weathered 12 years in parliament as an MP where she held down portfolios in health, conservation and women’s affairs, all of which would have come with more than their own share of contentious issues.
Steve reckons her unconventional outlook means she’ll give anything a go and doesn’t mind a little bit of risk. All of which is an interesting line of discussion in a sector whose moves can so easily be misconstrued in the public domain.
“You’ve got to look at innovation,” she says. “That’s a much more comfortable word in local government. You can do things differently and still be within the parameters of the law.”
She also reckons her experiences in central government consolidated her view that the law is a bit of an ass. It did, however, show her how to find small constructive ways to change things.
When she was thinking of standing as mayor for Rotorua, Tauranga mayor Stuart Crosby advised her to do the big visionary stuff but also to “do the small things really well”.
It’s a theme that she’s taken to heart. At a recent LGNZ rural and provincial sector meeting in Wellington, for instance, she raised the issue of changes being made to the Local Government Act so councils have the power to deal with illegal windscreen washers.
“I know how the law works. So instead of saying ‘you can’t do that’ we’re saying, ‘this needs to be amended or put right’.”
Similarly, changes to regulations on derelict buildings could be a small amendment to the Building Act, she says. Or it could go in an omnibus bill. “You just recommend an easier route rather than always thinking you’ve got to write new law.”
We talk about how for much of this year she’s been bearing the brunt of protest on the highly-contentious issue of the mechanism through which Te Arawa will have a voice at council. Again, the speed at which she acted was a bit much for some people.
Then suddenly I’m back out in the council foyer. There’s a slightly awkward moment when I leave. What’s the etiquette? I hold out my hand for a good old-fashioned shake. And I’ve been kicking myself ever since. From now on I’m going to just relax and go around kissing mayors like everybody else.
This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.