'Guardians' not 'lords' needed as nominations open for new council

by Esther Whitehead - Jul 15, 2022

A guest editorial by Queenstown Lakes District councillor Esther Whitehead, who's announcing she'll stand at this year's local government elections, with a zero-spend campaign.

Today we open up to candidate nominations for local body elections. You or someone you know may have considered standing as a councillor - Congrats, you’ve made it this far! For this role you will not be employed by ratepayers, but you will be accountable to them. 

There appear to be many candidates coming forward who want to show kaitiakitanga or stewardship in their governance leadership…gone are the times of lording over communities, or so they should be - we need to stop voting these people in! 

As voters we have the opportunity to research our candidates - a task which has never been easier with a quick google search or inviting them for a coffee.

Look beyond the campaign marketing, the glossy billboards and adverts, and look into their backgrounds and experience. It’s worth spending 30 minutes doing this before you tick the boxes and vote them in for the next three years based on a photo or a self-written profile. 

Too often those who want to lord over us have associated funding to their campaigns, giving far greater reach to campaigning, while enabling cronyism and often embedding loyalty to that cronyism.

I’ve decided my 2022 campaign will be a zero-spend campaign. It’s a bit of an experiment to see if I can get voted in based on the ability of our electorate to seek information about candidates and to look beyond face and name recognition.

Of course, they may research me and not want me, but I am choosing to keep money entirely out of politics. I could be cutting my nose off to spite my face, but that wouldn’t look good on a billboard, anyway! 

So, what’s the day to day?

In broad terms, councils have a legislative requirement to promote the social, cultural, environmental and economic wellbeing of the district or city or region.

As an elected councillor, you will formally approve or not approve projects that are consistent with the strategy and policy that you and/or past councillors have developed.

This requires you to look objectively at proposals and projects, and prioritise the views of the community. However, sometimes the "community" may be the community from a previous time.

In certain long-spanning projects, the community may have been consulted as long as five years ago and, let’s face it, the economy, the environment and our collective wisdom is a world away from even five years ago.

This creates challenges! Your job is to consider past decisions and past communities, current communities and future communities and how today’s decision will impact future communities.

It’s both fascinating and rewarding, with a little bit of terror sprinkled on top. 

You are guardians of the wellbeing of your district, city, or region, but you are also responsible for financial investment in the district, city, or region by ratepayers via rates, and we are seeing cost blowouts and lack of community consultation on extra spend.

This compromises our abilities as councillors to serve the needs of the communities. We have to therefore create openness and transparency in council decision-making regardless of how challenging that may be at times, enabling public scrutiny of councils’ decision-making.

And, what sort of decisions do councillors need to make? 

From 2019 a ‘refocus’ on wellbeing, as a consequence of the amendment of the Local Government Act 2002, has meant tensions within decision making.

We have previously had a dominant focus on infrastructure and this is at odds with the impacts and effects of climate change and climate adaptation, and we are now in a massive transformational time - globally, nationally and locally - where decarbonisation strategies have to be embedded across all policies and workstreams.

From day to day, we may be making decisions on mental health programmes, planning provisions or sewerage systems, whilst trying to keep a lens on climate adaptation, economic shifts and community representation. 

This makes the job incredibly wide in scope and incredibly interesting, but what’s important is to have your areas of strength and to identify these early on, ensure that you don’t try to do everything from day one.

Burnout is real and you can easily look after yourself by setting boundaries and prioritising areas of interest, strength and skills.

I think as councillors in local authorities, we can do better at communicating our strengths and shortcomings with our fellow councillors to build on each other's strengths.

Questions you can ask your council if you’re standing

Is a formal induction programme in place for elected members that covers governance (role, function, responsibilities); vision, strategy and goals; policies, culture and work practices; and operations? 

What provision is made for the ongoing professional development of elected members, both individually and as a group? 

What process is used to ensure the elected member induction is effective and conveys necessary information?

I came in on a by-election last year and this made my role a challenge to get my head around. I also only had about five weeks in person, before spending my whole role at home, on zoom - this has been a year now from home and my other work is also zoom-based. This can be lonely - a future office would allow hybrid and flexible working so that we support the wellbeing of councillors.  It’s really important to build relationships in person and to continue those in person to support collaboration and maintain the resilience to do the work.

What are the attributes needed for 21st century councillors?

Strong interpersonal skills that enable collaboration and good communication are vital, but we must also be able to disagree with the majority if we think it’s best for the community, so courage and tenacity are essential.

And what about the mayor? To me, the mayor needs to have strong emotional intelligence and lead by lifting councillors, as well as creating safe spaces to interact on difficult issues. This then supports the chief executive and helps support collaboration between the executive leadership team and the council.

Knowledge for the role can’t be underestimated but there are so many backgrounds that support a candidate in contributing well to the role. 

A 21st century councillor needs to see the big-picture, be able to listen to others, dive deep into policy and scrutinise material, and facilitate discussion.

There are so many people in every community who would be incredible contributors so I ask you to dig-deep and see if it could be you.

I have a feeling we are turning a corner and this optimism will see me standing again.

I would like to support others from more marginalised sectors of our community to consider standing and I hope that my insights will support them, so please be in touch.

You don’t have to be a hero; but you have to be prepared to do the mahi. Most importantly you are a guardian not a lord! 

Ngā mihi nui.

Esther Whitehead.

More info: https://www.lgnz.co.nz/local-government-in-nz/local-elections/vote2022/information-for-candidates/

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