'You cop some criticism': Mayor reflects on first year in the hot seat

by Kim Bowden - Oct 17, 2023

If you’d given him a crystal ball a year ago, revealing all that was about to hit the district, Mayor Glyn Lewers says he’d stick with his bid to take the top seat at the council decision-making table.

In the last month alone, the first-term mayor has grappled with a cryptosporidium outbreak, a compliance notice from the country’s new water regulator, and a localised state of emergency – plus, let’s throw in a possible bomb threat at Queenstown Airport too.

“They say that you’re going to have to deal with one crisis per term. But you always have to expect the unexpected in this job,” Mayor Lewers says, in an interview with Crux on his one-year anniversary in the job.

“I’ll be frank, the last two to three weeks, yep, they’ve been tough. I probably haven’t slept as much as I should; I probably haven’t looked after myself as much as I should.  

“But I still thoroughly enjoy doing what I’m doing.... I didn’t realise that payback of keeping my cup full, would be as great as it has been.”

Rather than putting him off, the gnarly problems appear to be what’s adding to the thrill of it.

“It’s the challenges of the issues we are facing...they are all interconnected and you can’t actually attack them in one way...it’s the complexity and challenge of it all that probaly excites me the most.”

However, perception is everything. 

While the former structural engineer may feel like he is thriving on particular aspects of the mayoral job, there have been some who claims he has been too ‘invisible’ in office. 

He admits taking to social media is not something he is “probably comfortable with”, plus he is time-poor, and he doesn’t see it as a priority. 

At least three days a week, there is some sort of function to attend in additional to a usual work day, he says.

“I’m also a dad as well, so when I do have that spare time I quite like to prioritise my tween and my teenager.”

He defends his track record, though, saying he is very visible across the district.

“I’m out amongst the community face to face…from firefighters to new immigrants with Welcoming Communities to the Maori business awards - all sorts of different functions, I’m across a fair bit when it comes to getting myself out there in front of people.”

When it comes to dealing with media, and specifically Crux, the mayor says “it’s usually been a rather bruising relationship” for his council.

But, again, he says he is not one to be put off by a bit of a challenging situation.  

'Pretty robust discussions'

“You’re always going to cop criticism, that comes with the territory…Not everyone’s going to agree with you.”

He says he has had some “pretty robust discussions” with members of the public since becoming mayor too.

“A lot of those discussions have been great, once they’ve expressed their view, even if we don’t agree on it. I think as long as you are open to having the discussion.”

But, what about the council he leads? Does he stand by its track record on openness and transparency?

Sometimes, the nature of the work, demands a level of secrecy, he says.

“There’s bits that you just can’t say…As much as you’d love to come out and say it…You’re actually protecting the position of the council legally and protecting the ratepayers.”

He'd like to think his council is able to “roll with the punches” when critiques happen, and maintains staff still need to make themselves available, even if they may be unhappy with the way their work is portrayed.

He is quick to defend the work of his communications staff, particularly during the recent three waters crisis. 

“Some of the staff did silly hours – I mean incredibly long hours, into the early hours of the morning to make sure the crypto message got out.”

But they still received flak for the timeliness of the information, and how accessible it was to businesses that needed to hear it.

“We’ve got a limited resource on comms…What do you do; do you get in more resource, which just means more cost to the community, or do you make do with what you can?” 

Plenty of keyboard warriors argue the council is already over-resourced, but the mayor is comfortable with staffing numbers and pay rates, which have included an eight percent year-on-year increase for council chief executive Mike Theelen in recent months, off the back of a 14 percent average rates rise. 

“You’ve got to make the place, the actual organisation, a desirable place to work…There’s only so much we can leverage of ‘it’s Queenstown or Wānaka and it’s a great lifestyle', especially now when you’ve got central government offering positions that pay more to do the same work but they can do them remotely.” 

Council factions

So, what about reports of factions among the council's elected members - is he aware of them and how much responsibility does he take for any disharmony?

"Look, being a councillor is tough. There's no two ways about it - it is a difficult role and they don't definitely get paid enough."

Last October, the local government elections delivered seven new councillors to office.

Although he's conscious of not appearing to speak on anyone's behalf, he thinks the newbies would agree that time was needed to get their "heads around the workings of local government".

He pushes back at any claim of disharmony, citing the council's voting record in the last year as evidence.

"We've got everything through; everything has passed."

He says on council the most powerful thing an elected member holds is their vote.

"From my observation, and I've had a bit of feedback from other councillors, is that the only thing that really upsets councillors is if another councillor doesn't respect their vote.

"When you've got comments coming out that councillors don't know what they're doing, or that they've got to step up, well actually, no, they've voted to what they believe in and what they feel is the correct way to direct this council. If you don't respect that it doesn't help the whole dynamic."

Cone-town, three waters and a new Government

When asked what he thinks people’s pet peeves are regarding the council – Conetown springs straight to mind. 

But he reckons the district can’t grow without some growing pains, and it will all be worth it in the end.

“Look at what’s happened with the (Queenstown) CBD…Most of that works now complete and mostly open…All those complaints have disappeared…Long gone into the history.

“Once we get through the arterial stage one and get those cones off the road, we’ll start to see the benefit of that investment.” 

There is plenty of work that still needs doing, and none off it comes cheap, and he recognises that is never going to be palatable to ratepayers.

He is chomping at the bit for a new Government to be negotiated as the dust settles on Saturday's general election.

"We're in the throes of working through our ten-year plan and we're under some very tight financial constraints when it comes to what we can and can not do, and it's mainly in the three waters space. We have a new Government that has made public their desire to repeal three waters; well, that has a very significant impact on how we plan for the ten years to the point that it pretty much consumes any discretion we have as councillors."

The mayor reveals he has had his own personal challenges throughout his first year in office also. 

His partner was diagnosed with breast cancer during his mayoral campaign, and then she spent the summer undergoing treatment.

“That was a bit of a shock…But, touch wood, it’s all well now….It’s just one of those things that life throws at you sometimes…It certainly puts things in perspective.”

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