After 12 months Wellington City councillors are starting to find their voices
An earthquake a month into their first term made for a rocky start for Wellington City's new mayor and councillors.
The magnitude-7.8 jolt on November 14 set the wheels in motion for a resilience strategy – one of many major issues for the new council, that would also tackle the likes of a major development at Shelly Bay, the botched Island Bay Cycleway and a looming housing crisis in its first year.
One year after the October 8 election, the way the new council handled the aftermath in its infancy, has done wonders for its reputation.
The general consensus is that Wellington Mayor Justin Lester and his team, which included five new councillors, have bedded in well, but the honeymoon looks to be winding down.
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* Meet the new Wellington city councillors
* Justin Lester elected new mayor of Wellington
Most recently, the appointment of first-time councillor Jill Day and a vote to sell land at Shelly Bay have rocked the boat.
As the new councillors begin to find their voices,the test for Lester will be in their second term, when they are feeling more comfortable.
Whether all the councillors will remain loyal to Lester remains to be seen.
During his first week in office, he met with the council's executive team and set out his vision for the city – the cornerstone of his 'united' council.
"I nutted out my priorities so they became aligned with theirs and that began to filter through the organisation."
Lester's clear set of goals include housing, transport and economy, a relationship with the Government and the arts.
He is very much in control of steering them and his councillors. Some might say he rules with an iron fist.
"I made it clear that I wanted a reference point to mark ourselves against for the next three years, so we set a triennium agreement – something councillors have never done before."
Lester is frank, saying he is aware half of the city did not vote for him as their mayor but believes ratepayers are happy when they compare his leadership to the previous "toxic" council.
"We have gone from being a toxic council to one that is functioning well and has a clear vision. I think we are doing well but there will always be concerns and people who are upset."
He thinks his councillors have done well so far and believes they are happy with his leadership.
"I try to keep them well informed and include them in as much as I can. I try to compromise and keep their views in mind."
He admits he had his doubts about some councillors and says their biggest challenge was overcoming the need to compete against each other.
"This is a group of very different individuals but it looks and feels like a team. They don't always agree – but they don't have to."
He believed in rewarding people for a good job and would dish out more responsibility to councillors who proved themselves.
The council's chief executive Kevin Lavery said the mayor had a firm vision for the city and since October they had been busy aligning work programmes and resources to achieve that.
The 2018 Long Term Plan would bring the vision together to ensure the council was heading in the right direction to deliver, he said.
"It has been a challenging year, and we have looked to grow stronger relationships with our community and stakeholders, deliver the basics well and be as prudent as we can with our finances."
As first-time councillor Diane Calvert experienced, it was not such an easy job.
"When taking on an elected member role, you understand, but don't fully appreciate, the depth of public scrutiny along with the comments of a type that many people do not have to face. You do start to develop a thicker skin but it's hardest when your family also has to face that criticism."
The Onslow-Western Ward councillor said she now had a much better appreciation that the role was equally about advocacy as it was governance.
"The council is like any new team in getting underway. This first year has been about establishing a collective vision and building a foundation of trust, respect and understanding of our respective skills and attributes. What I think you will see over the next two years is a stronger and more confident council that will also result in more substantial debate on key issues."
She believed councillors would make a positive difference but if they wanted to lead on issues, they would have to know how to work with bureaucracy, know their subject matter, make the right connections, be able to challenge assertively, compromise at times and be able to influence at all levels.
Wellington Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Milford gave the council's first 12 months a seven out of 10.
It had experienced a number of trials and tribulations but handled the earthquake aftermath well, getting the city up and running, he said.
He rated it highly for creating a good relationship with central government but said it fell down when it came to businesses.
The council's overall focus had been social [issues] and was events-based and businesses were still waiting on outcomes, he said.
Its second year together would be telling - if it could deliver on the promises of the convention centre and traffic issues.
Decision making had been improved by the early unified council but it was not out of the woods yet, he said.
"We have seen how Shelly Bay almost split the vote and before that they were making unanimous decisions."
First Retail managing director Chris Wilkinson believed the council had performed well considering its first few months were interrupted by the earthquake and it was left to manage the legacy of past decisions such as the Island Bay Cycleway and the lack of leadership from the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency.
"From talking with city and suburban business owners, we know many want to see greater local participation and visibility from the councillors, with stronger recognition of the issues affecting businesses."
"There are recognised challenges ahead and the retail sector will likely need greater support in the future – particularly around encouraging local visitation and spending, the encouragement of artisan and independent businesses and closer alignment on maximising commercial opportunities – such as events and tourism."
Former Wellington mayor Dame Fran Wilde believed the council was under much stronger leadership and apart from the deputy mayor "kerfuffle", it appeared to be working together.
"I think Justin has done a great job. He had an earthquake to contend with at the start and he has gone from strength to strength and is growing in the job."
Five things we have learned about Wellington City Council
- The new mayor has an iron grip on the city: Justin Lester regained the reins from the executive staff and has set a clear set of goals he wants to see achieved.
- However, under Lester's Labour regime there seems to be less public transparency. A lot of debate goes on behind closed doors at councillor "workshops" before public meetings.
- The council is made up of a much more functional and cohesive cast of characters, who make more decisions and fight less then the previous council.
- There is a new focus on public engagement and iwi affairs and new roles were created for councillors in a city ambassador and city scientist.
- Transport and housing are the immediate areas the council is focusing on.
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