Meeting adjourned for CEO Innes

04:22, Nov 21 2012
glen innes
Glen Innes has just retired as chief executive of Mackenzie District Council.

It was over without fanfare. At last week's Mackenzie District Council meeting, Glen Innes, who had sat beside the mayor at the council table for the past 10 years, delivered his final report from the bench.

His replacement, Wayne Barnett, sat beside mayor Claire Barlow.

Innes left the chambers as soon as he delivered the report. He wasn't sticking around.

When I caught up with him on Friday for our interview in the Herald office, I mentioned how low-key it all seemed to be. This was, after all, a decade of his life finished just like that.

"A few staff members said I was rather disturbingly relaxed in my last couple of weeks," Innes chuckles.

Innes has enrolled in a photography course at Aoraki Polytechnic and is looking forward to the freedom of setting his own timetable.


"I'm looking forward to a new phase of my life, but it's a job that has been good to me."

A council chief executive has to be a jack-of-all-trades, overseeing not only the day-to-day operation of the council and staffing, but also responsible for implementing the councillors' decisions.

"It's a role that requires a lot of flexibility," Innes says.

"You have to react to whatever comes through the door. No day is really the same."

He also agrees that council chief executives have become more public in the media, but he prefers to keep a lower profile than some.

"I employ the council staff, but the councillors employ me. The key thing for staff is for your governing body to make their directions clear. If councillors are divided or indecisive, it becomes difficult. If councillors have a bloody good debate on something then put it to rest, that's fine. I don't mind councillors taking a different tack to staff advice, provided I feel they have listened to the advice," he says.

Innes has had a few serves from councillors - most notably when the council failed to complete its annual report before the deadline back in 2010.

He has also expressed frustration in meetings - becoming visibly annoyed recently when councillors took more than four hours to debate the proposed amalgamation of the utility rates. But overall, Innes says his relationship with the various councillors, and the three mayors - Stan Scorringe, John O'Neill and most recently, Claire Barlow - has been excellent.

"Generally speaking, the staff and the councillors have had the same agenda, which is to achieve services at a reasonable cost."

The Mackenzie district is the country's third-smallest district in terms of population, (it has a ratepayer base of just over 4000) but one of the largest in terms of landmass (7300 square kilometres, nearly five times Wellington City's area). Statistics New Zealand's recent accommodation survey revealed that despite the recent downturn, the district recorded more than 425,000 guest nights in the past 12 months.

"With only 4000 or so ratepayers, any you can add to that number is a gift to be treasured," Innes says.

"The Shand Inquiry suggested councils that were tourist destinations with small rating populations could be assisted by receiving a portion of the GST from the tourist accommodation spend. It's unfortunate that successive governments have ignored the suggestion. Tourists who benefit from facilities as basic as decent modern toilets or signage, don't necessarily pay for the upkeep."

The Mackenzie basin's picture-postcard landscapes also make it a political lightning rod for both environmentalists and farming interests. Many groups are worried about the effect of increased land-use intensification to the environment, but there are farming interests who see it as ripe for irrigation and development.

"There's never going to be a shortage of outsiders with opinions on what the Mackenzie basin should or shouldn't look like," Innes says.

The district council's Plan Change 13, which proposes to regulate development in the Mackenzie basin, is still tangled up in the courts. Although Environment Court judge Jon Jackson's interim judgment declaring the basin an "outstanding natural landscape", should lead to stronger protection and conservation for the basin.

"It's always a delicate balance. Our three main strands of employment are tourism, farming and hydro generation. They all play a big part, and all sectors have their own sense of entitlement."

When Innes arrived in the Mackenzie district in 2002 after a stint with the Law Society, he already had more than two decades of local government experience - including a 12-year stint as general manager and then chief executive of Kapiti Coast District Council.

He came to a Mackenzie district on the verge of major development, particularly in Tekapo and Twizel.

"Twizel had begun to stretch beyond its boundaries; we had to respond to it almost after the fact," Innes says.

"Tekapo also had a number of major projects - particularly the upgrade to the sewerage system - that could have become a financial millstone around its neck. We responded by introducing a development contribution fund, which has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the council's coffers and paid for new facilities in the community."

Coldwater Developments' proposed revamp of Tekapo's village centre was cast aside a couple of years ago, amid tightening economic conditions and some community opposition. But the council is working on Tekapo's development in the background - the property group is progressing with proposed sales of lakeside land.

Innes says tourism and economic development in the region remain vexed - the council canned its tourism trust this year, and a working party has been set up to look at future options.

"Sometimes the role of council is to be the procurer of certain services that other better-resourced bodies can provide. There are limits to how much you can sustain your own separate tourist organisation", he says."

Innes says the council has completed several "big ticket items" over the past decade, including the rezoning of Twizel, the upgrades of Tekapo's community facilities and Fairlie's water supply, and a host of roading projects.

"It is really satisfying the way the people of the district can take ownership of projects. You see it in Fairlie with all the work done to beautify the village green, or with the new walkways being developed in Tekapo and Twizel," he says.

"It's a lot easier for people to get politically engaged. It's not like Auckland, where you might have one elected councillor for every 50,000 people. Here in Mackenzie, it's one per every 100."

Innes believes small local authorities can address problems quickly, without having to go through a long chain of command or red tape.

But he acknowledges that Local Government Minister David Carter's proposed reforms could drastically limit councils' scope and democratic functions.

The proposed reforms could also make it easier for council amalgamation to occur by eliminating the need for a public poll.

Innes agrees all these factors would probably have repercussions for smaller councils such as Mackenzie. He has previously expressed concern that the Government had "a view of council performances that appears to be based more on anecdotes, rather than solid evidence". But he's confident the community will make their voice heard.

Regardless, all that is out of the picture for him now - he's got photography on his mind.

"I found the period where I was working in the Law Society, where I wasn't the boss, a bit difficult," he says.

"I'm moving into a more creative endeavour. It will be all about finding the right light or time of day [to take photographs]. I guess I'm master of my own destiny, in a small way."

The Timaru Herald