New council boss has no regrets

MICHAEL FORBES
Last updated 05:00 26/12/2013

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He has been blindsided by job cuts, dealt with a fickle council, endured the upheaval of an election, and all while his family was on the other side of the world.

But Wellington City Council chief executive Kevin Lavery says his first eight months in the job have been enjoyable.

This week marks a year since Mr Lavery was confirmed as the replacement for former chief executive Garry Poole, whose contract the council chose not to renew.

It has proved to be a bit of a rollercoaster since then for the former Cornwall Council chief executive, who was dubbed "Marmite" in his previous job because people either loved or hated his cost-cutting approach.

His second day on the job in Wellington turned out to be the infamous "asleep at the wheel" meeting in April, when some councillors found out that more than 170 jobs at the publicly-owned infrastructure unit CitiOperations had been axed without their knowledge.

"It was like jumping straight in the deep end," he said this week as he prepared to head back to Britain for a holiday with his family.

"You've got to learn to swim, haven't you, and I guess I didn't sink. The decision [about CitiOps] had already been made by the time I arrived and I guess our job now is to make it work. It was a difficult start, but I think we've made some real progress since then."

The first annual plan he oversaw, in June and July, also proved a difficult time. His staff presented a plan that was under budget, allowing councillors $300,000 to spare, only for them to turn around and blow the budget on extra projects.

The resulting rates increase was eventually pegged back to the council's self-imposed target of 2.5 per cent, but Mr Lavery said he did not want to see another "stutter" like that in 2014.

Thankfully, the past year also provided plenty of high points as well.

The council managed to get some crucial "runs on the board" late in the year, in the form of changes to the developments contributions policy and a rates remission policy to help owners of earthquake-prone buildings carry out strengthening work.

"It was an interesting period in the lead-up to the [October] election, when things stopped because people were campaigning, but I think we've hit the ground running since then and made some solid progress."

He has been impressed with the way his staff have responded to his call for action.

"People have taken it on board and run with it. I think we've spent a lot of time preparing on that front and spent a lot of time talking to communities and business about what the priorities should be."

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Mr Lavery is looking forward to rolling up his sleeves in 2014. Helping to keep him energised next year will be wife Catherine, sons Daniel, 13, and Jack, 11, as well as his two cats and two dogs, who are moving to New Zealand from Cornwall next month.

They did not move with him in April because it was not quite the right time for his children to switch schools and there were quarantine issues for his pets.

"I've been back home a couple of times but it is pretty tough being on your own.

"I've done it before, I used to work as a consultant with multinational companies, so I have spent a fair bit of time away from home.

"But it's a bit different when you're 12,000 miles away. You can't just nip back for the weekend.

"So Skype has been pretty heavily used, but it's pretty hard when you miss things like my sons playing in the county rugby final, and that sort of stuff."

He has really taken to living in Wellington, and he expects his family will do the same.

"I think it's a stunning city. It's a really accessible, intimate sort of place. It's very friendly. For a small city, it packs a big punch. It's pretty much got all the facilities you could want."

He had no regrets about taking the job, saying life is much easier now that he has only 14 councillors and a mayor to deal with, compared with 123 councillors in Cornwall.

He is looking forward to a less-disruptive year when he gets back from his three-week Christmas holiday. "I think we've been preparing for the sprint, up until now, and now we've got to start sprinting in 2014."

- The Dominion Post

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