Christchurch mayor plays direct role in departure of council CEO

by Peter Newport - Nov 20, 2023


A drama that throws the spotlight on the responsibility of elected councillors as an employer started to play out in Christchurch last week. Today news emerged that the Christchurch City Council chief executive, Dawn Baxendale, had resigned prior to her contract expiring for personal reasons.

The decision followed a session of the council's chief executive performance review committee, chaired by mayor Phil Mauger - pictured in our main image above with Mrs Baxendale at his swearing in ceremony last year.

The 56-year-old chief executive started in the Christchurch role late-2019 after undertaking a similar chief executive role at the Birmingham council in the United Kingdom.

Local government chief executives, including the Queenstown Lakes District Council’s Mike Theelen, are only really answerable to one employer and that’s the elected members.

At regular intervals a committee of usually three councillors meet to review the chief executive's performance and their contract. This is particularly important at the five-year anniversary of a chief executive as at that point a compulsory external recruitment process has to be held in order to make sure that ratepayers, via their councillors, have still got the best person for the job.

Mrs Baxendale had just reached that five year mark.

In a surprise move last week a full Christchurch City Council meeting suddenly went into a publicly excluded session – with not just the public but media and some council staff also asked to leave the meeting.

The Christchurch mayor Phil Mauger told the meeting that there had been developments from the chief executive performance and employment committee that needed to be considered immediately by the council. That closed session is reported to have lasted two hours.

After the meeting councillors were universally tight lipped about what the nature of this drama was, telling journalists that more about the situation would become clear this week.

While we wait for more information (the full Christchurch City Council statement, including comment from Mrs Baxendale, is published below), here’s what Crux can piece together from recent media reports.

In July this year, in a story headlined 'Christchurch council staff vent anger on leadership', Newsroom reported that council staff were up in arms over the chief executive’s pay increases ($548,548 take home pay a year) and concern over the leadership team’s perceived general lack of competence.

Newsroom managed to get hold of a staff survey, where 1,849 staff (out of a total 2,856) expressed views “littered with disappointment and disillusionment”. A clear picture was painted of unhappy staff who felt underpaid, undervalued and who had a low opinion of their council bosses including Mrs Baxendale.

Of course there were other problems. Earlier this month, mayor Phil Mauger and Baxendale apologised for the way council handled the response to the stench caused by the Bromley wastewater treatment plant fire. The fire was also linked to mysterious senior manager absences on paid leave.

Whatever the background, and more will emerge over the next few days, this case illustrates the power that elected members have over their chief executive. It's noteworthy that, as is the case with the QLDC, the Christchurch mayor is also the chair of the chief executive review committee.

Parallels with the Queenstown Lakes District are interesting. Mr Theelen’s problems appear to lie not with his staff but with the community and ratepayers.

Mr Theelen has lurched from crisis to crisis – Lakeview, the arterial road, the CBD upgrade, the Ladies Mile toxic house, and, of course, the decision not to invest in clean drinking water, plus the looming Project Manawa/council HQ debate – all putting the council into hundreds of millions of dollars of unscheduled debt while counting a $160 million non-existent bed tax on the income side of the balance sheet.

In addition, community trust in Mr Theelen and his council team has consistently dropped in the QLDC's own surveys, most recently sitting at just 19 percent.

And yet, the QLDC’s chief executive performance committee, headed by Mayor Glyn Lewers, just gave Mr Theelen a glowing report and a whopping eight percent pay rise to a $415,321 annual salary.

Something is likely to change soon. Watch out for that unexpected invitation for the public, media and staff to make an early departure from a full council meeting.

Mrs Baxendale’s departure was clearly not a carefully planned event, at least not by Mrs Baxendale.

Dawn Baxendale joined Christchurch City Council five years ago after just 16 months as chief executive at the Birmingham City Council in the United Kingdom.

Here's the Christchurch City Council's full statement, issued a short time ago:

Christchurch City Council has accepted the resignation of its chief executive Dawn Baxendale which was tendered on 6 November.

Mrs Baxendale started at the council in October 2019, after moving from the United Kingdom where she held senior local government positions. She was employed at Christchurch City on a five-year contract, which finishes in October 2024.

She says she is leaving before her contract expires for personal reasons and feels it is timely to do so now because she has decided not to reapply for a further five-year contract at the council.

“The council is developing its Long-Term Plan for the next 10 years and it is appropriate for a new manager to lead the organisation through the development and implementation of this plan,” she says.

“I leave feeling extremely proud of what we have achieved at the council over the past four years during what has been a very challenging time. At all times I have been very mindful of my responsibility to councillors, staff and residents of our wonderful city. My emphasis has always been on delivering services to our residents, while at the same time ensuring prudent financial management.

“I have enjoyed working for both the council and the city. I would like to thank the very dedicated staff I have worked alongside for their support and their commitment to residents.”

Christchurch Mayor Phil Mauger says the council accepted Mrs Baxendale’s resignation at its meeting on Wednesday 15 November where it also discussed the next steps in the recruitment of a new chief executive.

“During her time at the council, Dawn has overseen significant decisions for our city,” the mayor says.

“There have also been major challenges and opportunities for the council including the Covid pandemic and lockdown, the development of Te Kaha and improving the council’s credit rating with Standard and Poors. Dawn’s leadership helped us get through these tough times and seize the opportunities.

“I want to note my personal thanks for her service, integrity and hard work during her time here in Christchurch. We wish her and her husband Scott and family all the very best for the next chapter."

Mrs Baxendale’s last day will coincide with the end of her annual leave on 30 November.

Mary Richardson, general manager citizens and community and acting general manager infrastructure, planning and regulatory services, has been appointed interim chief executive. She will hold this position until a new chief executive is appointed.

The council will now begin the recruitment process for a replacement.

Note: There will be no further comment from the Mayor on this matter until the process for a new appointment is confirmed. Mrs Baxendale will also not make any further comment.

Support Crux Support Crux