The distinction between the governance roles of the mayor and councillors and the management role of the chief executive is the critical foundation of our system. This distinction must take place in a way that builds mutual trust.
It helps that New Zealand’s Local Government Act sets out the specific statutory responsibilities of the chief executive as the manager, employer, leader of staff and principal administrative officer. All of our chiefs find themselves having to assert that authority from time to time when the lines become blurred.
The most risky time for the relationship is the beginning of a new term with a new mayor and council. Being able to traverse the line between governance and management with a degree of authority, respect and political nous is critical.
New Zealand’s structure
Sixty six of New Zealand’s 67 territorial authorities (includes cities, provincial and rural districts) have elected mayors. However, 10 of its 11 regional councils have elected councils which select their chair or leader.
With the exception of Auckland Council, where the mayor has some additional powers and leads a mayoral office with a chief of staff, NZ mayors do not hold a great deal of authority over and above their fellow councillors.
In my experience an elected mayor quickly finds that a constructive relationship with the chief is essential for his/her role to be successful.
I have worked with three very different elected mayors now and we have been able to put in place a good foundation for our working relationship. That seems to be the case for most councils in NZ. In NZ the chief is the only employee of the council. All other staff are employed and directed by the chief executive.
Barbara McKerrow, chief executive, New Plymouth DC