Mayor must be accessible

Last updated 08:35 17/01/2014

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OPINION: With the announcement this week of the appointment of a press secretary for Mayor Lianne Dalziel, along with a number of other appointments, the make-up of the mayor's office is now complete. The mayor had earlier announced the appointment of a chief of staff to run the office. The mayor will have nine people working directly for her, more than twice the four that the former mayor, Bob Parker, had.

An office of that size may seem a lot - as large as that of some ministers. But it was decided upon after the acting chief executive Jane Parfitt reviewed the staffing requirements of the office in light of changes to the mayor's responsibilities under the Local Government Act. The changes came into effect after the last local body election and are potentially significant. Among other things they give explicit responsibility to mayors to lead the development of their cities' plans, including the long- term and annual plans, policies and budgets for consideration by councillors.

In addition to a chief of staff and a press secretary, the mayor now has a senior adviser, a community adviser, a visits and ceremonials co-ordinator, two information officers and two executive assistants (one of them shared with the chief of staff). It must be hoped this staff will be committed to ensuring robust performance from the mayor's office. It must also be hoped they will be committed to the greatest possible transparency and openness about the mayor's work.

The mayor's community adviser is Nicola Shirlaw, who was Dalziel's campaign manager for the council election. That political connection is of no great significance by itself but the mayor must take care not to allow her office to become highly politicised or excessively inward-looking. Rightly or wrongly, Parker was accused, particularly in the last years of his tenure, of having created a clique that had an attitude of defensive hostility towards criticism. In his case this was supposed to have happened around the council table, but it is a hazard inherent in the formation of an office of like- minded supporters also. The mayor must be alert to see that that attitude does not develop within her office.

The office must also not become a barrier between the mayor and the media and public. Parker was commendably available to the media - replying with remarkable diligence and promptness to emails, texts and phone calls, even at the height of his political travails when there was little benefit to him from doing so. Dalziel is proving to be less accessible. This may be a consequence of a busy schedule, or the time of year, but the outcome is she appears less fastidious in ensuring her availability.

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There are of course many demands on the mayor's time and it is not necessary for her personally to answer every question put to her office. But fobbing important questions off to a press secretary, who will never be able to answer with the knowledge or nuance of the mayor herself, will not be acceptable. Answering to the public through the media comes with the job and the mayor must not shirk it.

- The Press

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