CEO convinced city needs him

23:41, Feb 24 2012
UNDER FIRE: Christchurch City Council chief executive Tony Marryatt.

Embattled Christchurch chief executive officer Tony Marryatt says it is the councillors who make the decisions - he just provides the information to base them on. JOHN McCRONE reports. 

It must be tough being Tony right now. But he is a difficult guy to read. Up in his spacious if bland office, Marryatt talks in controlled fashion about what it is like to be the focus of so much vilification.

You might expect more despair or aggression to tinge his tone. However, he is making it clear that fact number one is that he is still here as Christchurch City Council's chief executive. So he will continue just trying to do his job.

"The council could sit down and negotiate my exit tomorrow. If it's what they wanted, then I would just sit down here and negotiate it. I've told the mayor that."

But instead, he says, despite all the fuss, last year the councillors reappointed him and indeed granted him a healthy performance pay rise - "Recognition for a job well done".

And the Minister of Local Government, Nick Smith, has since said the council is nowhere near the threshold of dysfunction, demanding drastic intervention.


"Look, dysfunction to me is when a council doesn't make decisions. This council makes decisions. I think what some people define as dysfunctional is simply 'This council makes decisions I don't agree with'."

So with efforts now being made to heal the council from within, Marryatt believes the crisis should pass. He and the council will be judged on what is actually delivered this year as the recovery kicks into gear.

Although they choose their words carefully, both Marryatt and Mayor Bob Parker blame the agitation against his reappointment last year on a small group of property owners and their buddies.

Parker has said certain people expected to have more influence over council decisions that affected their financial interests - especially where they had bought land cheap, hoping to benefit from future city plan changes. So they were not happy with Marryatt's blunt replies to some of their overtures. "He's not what you would call complicated. He can be very direct at times," Parker says. And word is that Marryatt inflamed one meeting by ending it with a sarcastic wink.

Marryatt will only say the rules on how the council should deal with commercial pressure are very clear.

Also, he bears no grudges as the council has to work with these same people to get Christchurch rebuilt. They still need each other. "But I will do it straight up and down."

In fact, that particular campaign against him has disappeared now, says Marryatt. Or, at least, the open attacks have died away.

Instead, the issue has become the "people's protest" driven by private citizens like Peter Lynch, Reverend Mike Coleman and retired property developer Hugh Pavletich.

Parker and Marryatt view this as political opportunism - the Left helping to foment dissent. Although this does not quite tally with the broad range of politics of those involved in the street marches and online sites like Cantabrians Unite.

Then there is the unrest around the council table itself. A group including councillors Jimmy Chen, Yani Johanson and Glenn Livingstone has been asking hard questions. But Cr Tim Carter in particular has continued to gun for Marryatt.

Marryatt says he has been able to tolerate a lot because he knows he has the backing of his officer team, his mayor, and others on the inside of things.

But the councillors are his employers.

So his blackest day was in January - "When I read the front page of the paper with [Carter] saying he was going to the minister to ask for me to be sacked."

The biggest criticism of Marryatt is that he is too ready to ride roughshod over democratic process. Even supporters, like former mayor of Hamilton City Council Margaret Evans, have noted Marryatt's bullish nature can be both a positive and a negative.

"Tony can work extremely well with a strong team. It's not unexpected that if the strong team is not there he will take over," she remarked on his appointment.

But Marryatt is vehement he knows his place. "My role is pretty simple. It is to give policy advice. And to lead an organisation in its service delivery."

Marryatt says in every case - the controversies over the new civic offices, the Ellerslie flower show, the Henderson properties, the music conservatorium - he provided councillors with the information, the options, then they took the decisions.

With a sigh, Marryatt says it is fact of political life that councillors will often complain afterwards they were rushed or steered. Conscious of their re-election prospects, they may back away from being too personally connected with unpopular council actions.

Marryatt also believes a lot of the discord can be blamed on the fact that Parker's second term of office began with five new councillors around the table and no time to get settled as a team.

"Because of the earthquakes, there wasn't any nice lead-in or induction. No let's understand the business and let's spend the first year working on a long-term plan. This was a council which was thrown in the deep end."

This is why having a Government-appointed observer in Kerry Marshall should be helpful in creating better relationships, Marryatt says.

He agrees there have been days when he has wondered "why bother staying?". Yet he wants to continue as a matter of professional pride. "I'm here to make a difference."

Marryatt says bringing in a new CEO would create six to nine months of turmoil while a replacement is sought. And while the criticisms have been all too public, the support has been there in private. "The strong message I get from people out there in the community is 'hang in there, you're doing a good job, the city needs you'. I've actually had a lot of positive feedback."

The Press