This mayor is still not 'turning back'
Claire Barlow's rise from council receptionist to mayor was one of the more unlikely stories in local government history. Reporter Matthew Littlewood talks to her about her first three years as Mackenzie District mayor and why she has decided to run for re-election.
The old joke that the receptionist truly runs the place came true in the most unlikely circumstances three years ago. Claire Barlow, who had been the receptionist at the Mackenzie District Council for seven years, ran for mayor.
Against all odds, she won the 2010 mayoral election, with a 30-vote lead over her nearest contender, Graeme Page, and 441 votes ahead of sitting councillor and mayoral contender Dave Pullen.
"I had thought about running for mayor about a year before I made the announcement public. I ended up telling everyone because I felt that way I couldn't back out of the decision," she says.
"There was no turning back."
She was the first woman to become mayor of the Mackenzie district, and very unlike any of those who came before her. But then Mackenzie is a unique district, and the basin's picture-postcard landscapes make it a political lightning rod for both environmentalists and farming interests
"I haven't lived here 25 years, so I'm not considered a local yet. I won without being a local, a farmer, or a man," Barlow jokes.
Over the course of our conversation over coffee in Timaru, she constantly reiterates that everything has been a "learning experience". Yet she seems assertive, in a way she wasn't in her first, tentative appearances on her campaign.
When she first ran for mayor, she knew a lot of the issues - fielding calls as a receptionist gave her a better grasp of how the council worked than most people - but she was not as au fait with the more "complex details".
She recalls a "meet the candidates" event at the Fairlie Federated Farmers AGM.
"It went so badly. I just wanted to curl up in a ball when I got home," she says.
"Then I remembered all the positive things people said to me on the campaign trail, and that I needed to have a thick skin. I'm much more confident these days."
Barlow's background certainly did not suggest a career in local government.
Due to her husband Stephen's work the family moved around a lot. There had been periods - up to 17 years - where the family lived on one income. Barlow even home-schooled her four children (although all of them attended secondary school) at various stages - she was properly ERO accredited.
"It was tough [living on one income and home-schooling the children], but it taught me resilience, and the need to live within your means. I can be strong-willed, but I'm always at my best working in a team," she says.
The family has lived in the Mackenzie district since Stephen took up a position at the Mt John Observatory in 1997. They initially lived in Tekapo but, surrounded by holiday homes, Barlow found it quite lonely. So they moved to Fairlie, and she moved into fulltime work as a receptionist in 1998.
Stephen is now the council's IT manager but his wife is the more politically minded of the two of them.
"He's been an absolute rock. He offers me advice, but he also knows that I'm the mayor and I make the decisions."
I ask whether the children refer to her as mayor.
"No! Of course not! They've all left home, anyway. But they were very pleased that I won."
In 2010, Barlow ran on a platform of better communication and bringing the district together - and has tried to put that into action since.
Her communications strategy has included a fortnightly slot on Port FM in Timaru and a regular column in the community newsletters in Twizel and Fairlie. She also holds constituency clinics in Twizel.
Barlow freely admits that she was "naive" about some of the challenges. She says she was lucky how well the then chief executive, Glen Innes, handled the switch from being her boss to her employee, but even tasks such as making committee appointments were new to her.
"I was lucky in that I made the right decision - I picked a really good deputy mayor (Graham Smith), but I didn't really know any of the councillors' strengths and weaknesses. Everything has to be done in the first couple of weeks, it was a bit frantic," she says.
She also wanted to make the public submission and consultation process more accessible to people. Certainly, she got that last year: The draft long-term plan received nearly 500 submissions - most of them were focused around the decision to amalgamate the district's utility rates, and funding for tourism.
"I really believe the public submission process is a great thing - even though some of the feedback hurt, much of the feedback was really smart, really sensible. We took a lot of it on board."
The council proposed to amalgamate its water, sewer and stormwater rates - at the moment, Fairlie, Twizel, Tekapo and the rural properties are all rated for these separately - but eventually backed down from the proposal due to widespread Twizel opposition.
"I still think it was the right idea [to amalgamate the district's utility rates], but maybe it wasn't the right time. Perhaps we have to go back to the drawing board, and come up with a solution that is more appealing to the Twizel community," she says
Several issues landed on Barlow's desk as soon as she became mayor.
Some of these she already knew about from fielding calls as the receptionist - including a $250,000-plus deficit in the solid waste budget.
In response, the council put a contract out to tender. It signed a 10-year contract with Envirowaste in 2011: The new contract included switching from rubbish bags to recycling bins for kerbside collection, with the residual waste trucked to Southland.
"We've managed to get more work at a better price. I remember fielding the complaints about the solid waste system [as a receptionist]. The council had a target of 'zero waste' [since 2002], but it was just not achievable for a reasonable cost," she says.
Barlow sees herself as a force for unity. "We have very distinct communities in Twizel, Fairlie, Albury and Tekapo, but the Mackenzie should be working together as one," she says.
"I really love it when in the local Twizel Update, they talk about things happening in Fairlie, and in the Fairlie Accessible, they talk about things happening in Twizel."
Barlow says the council's amalgamation of the roading rate was an example of pooling resources for the greater good of the district.
"When we had the floods last year [in August], it caused about $1 million worth of damage to our roads and bridges. The Government will pay for 82 per cent of it, but the remaining cost is spread over the whole district, rather than one community being hit really badly. By combining the rate, you can get a package of work for your dollar."
She says the council's toughest decision was to disband the Mackenzie Tourism and Development Trust last year.
The process was not without rancour - some trustees argued that the council had under-funded it for years, while the council pointed to major deficits on its books.
"It was sad. There were some really good people involved in the trust, but we couldn't come to an agreement."
Barlow says the negotiated arrangement with Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism has worked well. "I know 'collaboration' is the catchphrase in local government right now, but I do think our council is too small to do some things on its own," she says.
Accordingly, she supports public-private partnerships where effective, pointing to the council's recent work with Hughes Development on the opening up of the Tekapo commercial lakefront.
"Some people think councils should be focused on keeping rates low, but I've always said it's actually about providing a good service that it is sustainable."
Barlow stresses the desire of being surrounded by a good team - throughout the interview, she talks about how impressed she is by her fellow councillors and skills they each bring.
"There is huge potential in the district, particularly for tourism and development - it's really important that the community are involved in it. I would really like to be a part of it, too, that's why I am running again. It is different this time because I am running as an incumbent, people have things to judge me on. But all I ask is people take me as I am.
"My motto is: Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
The Timaru Herald