Elected officials and local government professionals have a tight relationship: they can’t do their jobs without each other.
Bay of Plenty Regional Council Toi Moana Governance Manager Yvonne Tatton describes it like this: “In simple terms we all work together as one body. The council as governance is the head, doing the thinking and giving direction. The organisation is the rest of the body – the arms and the legs – that do the work. There is a collaborative synergy that occurs. You can’t have one without the other.”
Yvonne, who has worked in local government for 17 years and five in her current role, says that the line between governance and management can be difficult for elected members at times, especially those new to the role. “Governance professionals can assist the chief executive to ensure matters that come before the council don’t blur that line.”
Building trust with councillors is another key aspect of her job and Yvonne has worked closely with young elected members who needed holistic support to help them integrate into the political environment.
“I walk beside them and help facilitate whatever support they need at that time.”
She says building credibility means “you have to know your stuff”, and navigating the political environment is a vital skill. When there is an allegation of a breach of the council’s Code of Conduct she supports the chief executive in managing this process, aiming to find a solution and rebuild trust among councillors.
Yvonne says it’s an honour to support the elected members. “They have a tough role and they have a heart for leading change in our community. I really enjoy politics and for me to be in the background supporting this process – it’s a great role.”
As Team Leader Civic at Dunedin City Council, Clare Sullivan is working every day to support the democratic process: to ensure elected members have the information and advice they need to carry out their role as decision-makers.
Clare has worked in local government since 2001 and has been in her Dunedin role for a year. This followed a long stint with Christchurch City Council during which time the city was devastated by earthquakes – forcing the council and the professional staff to re-examine much of their work.
Clare advises governance professionals to use the experience of their colleagues, including those from other councils, when working with elected officials: “There’s a wealth of knowledge there that can support you.”
And she says that while local bodies all operate under the same legislation, there are often big differences in the culture of each area. Everyone approaches their work differently and professionals need to be flexible, while still meeting statutory requirements.
Clare is also Dunedin’s Deputy Electoral Officer and works with councillors to review wards and manage representation.
She says mutual respect is the key to success: “Councils are large and complex organisations, and councillors have to make decisions on a wide range of issues. There’s a role for staff to understand and appreciate that.”
For David Ward, the CEO of Selwyn District District, supporting councillors and the process of local democracy means building open and effective relationships, talking to each other and “making sure I’ve provided councillors with everything they need to make good decisions for the future”.
David has close to 30 years at the executive level of local government and he’s been at Selwyn District District since 2013. Rolleston is one of the South Island’s fastest-growing towns.
Managing large and rapid growth puts pressure on councillors so David and his colleagues take the time with newly elected councillors to go through the commitments of the Annual Plan: “There’s a mountain of reading. There are papers and papers and papers… it’s ongoing."
“I remind them that, whatever district you’re in, the council is the biggest business in town because it impacts on every single person, every single day.”
Part of this induction process is learning what councillors want to achieve. “We find out what are the things that are really important to them and ask what do they want to contribute.”
In the past he found new councillors reluctant to question financial reports and he has supported them to develop the skills and confidence to read reports, ask pertinent questions and know what the answer should be.
“I also advise that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
Taituarā Chief Advisor, Raymond Horan describes governance professionals as “the keepers of the democratic process”.
“It’s their job to ensure the legislation is followed and to make sure councillors follow their own procedures.”
Raymond has worked in the local government sector for nearly 27 years. He advises professionals to “know what you are talking about, because you will be constantly challenged. And be polite, but firm!”
Local government officials are under an obligation to provide neutral, apolitical advice to elected members and take robust action on the decisions they make.
Sometimes internal struggles divide a council and the chief executive and senior management team are a bridge between factions – but it’s not their job to take sides.
“We need to remember at all times that local government is essentially a democratic service. It is meant to make local decision-making accessible to the public. We are the guardians of this process.”