A mayor intent on giving power back to the people

MARYANNE TWENTYMAN
Last updated 05:00 28/12/2012
WINNING THE BATTLE: Thames-Coromandel District Council mayor Glenn Leach will stand for one more term as mayor in the 2013 local body election.
MARK TAYLOR
WINNING THE BATTLE: Thames-Coromandel District Council mayor Glenn Leach will stand for one more term as mayor in the 2013 local body election.

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One has to check their surroundings when speaking with Thames-Coromandel District Mayor Glenn Leach.

The language would not be out of place in the changing rooms at halftime during an All Black test, with talk of a fitter, leaner organisation, running with the ball, playing the game tighter and taking responsibility for one's position on the "team".

Leach exudes a no-nonsense approach to the responsibility of running that team. And it's a job he has clearly tackled head-on in his first two years at the helm.

Having battled cancer, restructured an organisation at the cost of around 50 positions, and dealt with a seaside suburb perched atop arsenic-laced land - it's fair to say the 63-year-old has spent little time warming the bench.

In fact he hit the ground running - gathering his troops before they were even sworn in as the new council and rewriting the mission, vision and objectives for the following three years.

"I put that in front of [then chief executive Steve Ruru] and called off a planned retreat that had been booked to effectively do the same thing - at a cost of thousands of dollars, there was no need for it and all the councillors agreed," he said.

In that one act, Leach effectively laid the foundations for what was to come, and within months, the council had a new chief executive ready to pick up the team ball and run with it.

"We had 30-odd applications for that job and we got down to the last three which included the incumbent, but David [Hammond] understood our vision and what we stand for in giving power back to the people."

"We restructured, we've made bottom line after line after line looking at how we do business, and we now have a chief financial officer on our executive team, which we've never had before."

Leach admits the restructuring process took its toll. He was accused of costing the council millions in personal grievances and yet maintains "there has not been one".

"I felt pretty alone here in that first 12 months coming to grips with where we needed to go, but look at us now: there is unity within council and that means everything."

Leach shook cages and called for staff to stand up and become accountable for their roles.

"Everyone knew where the weak links were, some of them bailed and good on them, because as far as I am concerned, it let the rest of us get on and do the job - and it's bloody good, I tell you."

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While staff numbers toppled from 230 to around 180 at the district council, Leach was aware that staff numbers at Waikato Regional Council were climbing. He said that kind of message has fallen foul of Coromandel ratepayers who have petitioned to break away from the Waikato Regional Council structure.

"Our ratepayers feel disconnected," Leach says. "[WRC] has to realise over here there is a swell of people that don't want them, who see another level of bureaucracy that should be wiped out - and I don't disagree with them."

WRC collects $16.4 million in rates from Hauraki and Thames-Coromandel districts, of which about $6.6m is used to fund river and catchment works in the two districts.

Leach has called for "the financials" from WRC to see whether a unitary authority could work in the region.

"I have found it's about looking after ourselves. There is only one way to get ahead and that's to stand up and be counted and we are being proactive rather than reactive. We'll be ready to go if and when the time comes," he says.

Proactive is perhaps a good word to describe council's approach to the land concerns in the Thames suburb of Moanataiari, where more than 200 residents have been "to hell and back" over claims that their homes were built on contaminated land.

"I take my hat off to the people of Moanataiari, in the sense they have had faith in us," Leach says.

"I went to the first public meeting and listened to the scientific presentations from regional council and shook my head at the way they tried to handle it. For me it was all about what is the health risk and how do we manage it for the people who have their life savings tied up in that area. In most situations the consultants and the boffins have been proved wrong and council has done everything possible to remedy any areas of concern."

While battles have been fought on a regional front, closer to home Leach has faced a personal battle that many find too tough to beat: cancer.

Four years ago he lost his first wife, Rennie, to melanoma, so when doctors confirmed that he had lymphoma his thoughts went straight to his own family who "had been here before".

"I was married to Rennie for 40 years. She was never hospitalised, she stayed home with me so my attitude to cancer and death changed a fair bit during that time," he says.

He was determined to see the diagnosis as yet another challenge and stick around "for a lot longer" for his children and grandchildren. Surgeons removed a lump from his neck in March and radiation treatment followed. Throughout his treatment Leach remained at work because "it never crossed my mind that I shouldn't". Eight months on Leach is optimistic. He's been told he was "60:40 in favour of having beaten [cancer]".

By his side has been wife Trudi whom Leach first met through the tourism industry about 30 years ago. Between them, the couple have four children and six grandchildren. "Our paths crossed at a function a couple of years back and we've been together ever since - she is so good for me and I couldn't do this job without her."

And he's set to give the job another whirl next term.

"But that will be it. If we come back in and do another three years that would be my end of the road. But I want to be involved in getting the bricks and building blocks in place ready for the future."

Many items have already been ticked off the list, among them the Kopu Bridge, Great Coromandel Walk, and regional cycleway. But Leach wants to see more emphasis on aquaculture - particularly growth in mussel farms. He is equally passionate about pushing for State Highway 2 to make the region more accessible to Auckland.

"It is crucial for us that money is spent on it, but we, as mayors of this region, have to keep pressure on that State Highway 2. I can see us commuting to Bombay in half an hour - our economy depends on it."

In his first week as mayor Leach was described as forthright, articulate, chirpy, earthy and confident. Two years down the track not a lot has changed - although he admits the word articulate might be too gracious. But as he has already shown . . . actions speak louder the words.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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