Skillset needed to be a mayor

Categories: Politics business and economics.

What qualities and skills are needed to be a successful mayor in a city like Wellington? John Bishop talks to several former local-body politicians about what makes a successful mayor, and summarises in a chart the views of mayoral aspirants on some of the issues that will confront the next council.


In Wellington being mayor is a full-time job. The mayor is the leader of the council and the only one elected by the whole city. Councillors are elected by wards, and the role is not intended to be full-time, although some councillors treat it as such.

The chief executive employs all the staff of the city council, and reports to the mayor and council. The mayor has a personal office and some personal staff.

Councillors have to go through the chief executive to get information and to discuss matters with council staff. A mayor has only one vote at the council table and needs to make deals to get policies through, but has few “rewards” to give in return. Positions like committee chairs, portfolios and appointments to external bodies (which may bring extra money) are all approved by the whole council.

What makes someone a good leader – a person who gets things done – often depends on the situation which confronts them and the requirements of the job as much as their own qualities.

Capital asked three people with extensive experience at the council table in Wellington and Lower Hutt what qualities a mayor needed to be successful.

Our commentators

  • Kerry Prendergast was mayor of Wellington City for nine years until defeated by Celia Wade-Brown in 2010. Previously she served on the Tawa Borough and Wellington City Councils from 1986 until elected mayor of Wellington in 2001.
  • John Terris was a Hutt City councillor (1977- 1989), and a local Labour Party MP for 12 years (1978 to 1990). He was elected three times as the mayor of Hutt City (as an independent) serving from 1995-2004.
  • Sue Piper was a Wellington Labour Party city councillor for nine years (1995-2004) and later a member and chair of the Local Government Commission (2005-2011), and was very involved in setting up the Auckland Council.

All three nominate similar attributes of a successful mayor. Sue Piper: “Team leader, collaborative, sees the big picture, a strategic thinker, and makes good deals.”

Kerry Prendergast says, “A person with leadership qualities and mana, honesty, and integrity; who has the respect of his or her community and peers.”

And John Terris adds, “Someone like Kerry Prendergast had all the qualities. A sense ofleadership. A mayor needs to be able to take names and kick butt, which means a quality of assertiveness.”

All three say the mayor needs a strong vision. “You also need to get people to work together;’ says Terris.

“You need a common vision and some loyal people around you. I don’t favour party politics in local government, but coalitions are what it is about. Kerry (Prendergast as mayor of Wellington) had a deal with the Labour Party at the council table which got things done.” Sue Piper was the architect of that deal (which began under the previous mayor Mark Blumsky). “We cut a deal with Blumsky in the 1998-2001 council where in return for support for his programme it was agreed that public housing – our number one priority – was off the agenda for that term. This helped protect WCe’s considerable holding, which is still in council hands today.”

In her nine years as mayor Kerry Prendergast had some struggles getting agreement around the council table. She cites situational factors, such as “being elected to a council where you don’t have a majority; where a council has no vision, brand, or has confused objectives, so that you need to work with your peers and the community to get agreed ownership of one; where a council is in bad financial shape; where you have different political views to, and no respect from, central government; and where the community has elected some councillors who are impossible people to work with.”

So what can a mayor do? Prendergast worked hard to get agreement which she notes is not the same as getting consensus.

“In an ideal world consensus sounds great, and I worked hard to get unanimous support for my vision for more than six years. However, seeking consensus can produce a vanilla solution.

“You need good democratic decision-making, with all views heard including from the experts and community; and then a strong majority decision made so that people know where they stand. Making a decision on the best information available and sticking to it is one of a mayor’s most useful tools.”

An ability to speak well, to articulate a goal to help build support enhances the ability to lead, says Terris. We ask the commentators about leaders whom they had admired and about the immediate future for Wellington City Council, given the “toxic” culture said to exist there; this among many other criticisms of the council and the retiring mayor Celia Wade-Brown.

Sue Piper: “Two things: a very clear strategy and vision of Wellington in 15 years, and the ability to make deals.”

She admired Kerry Prendergast’s leadership style: “She had a long-term strategy which she could sell. Likewise, Angela Foulkes from the Council of Trade Unions. Both were easy to work with. Their behaviour and attitudes were consistent and principled.” Piper declines to say who she thinks has the right qualities to be the next mayor.

John Terris says of the current crop he’s impressed by Nick Leggett, “who has the qualities to do the job because he’s done it for six years in Porirua. He’s been successful, is young and energetic.”

On the general qualities the next mayor will require, Kerry Prendergast says, “They will need a strong mandate from the democratic process, and then the ability to pull together a team who will work towards a shared vision with the strategic objectives that have the support of the whole community. This will require someone who knows the issues and can hit the ground running.

“We need to reclaim our place as the capital city that is not only perceived to be, but is, the best place to live, work play and visit.

“Being able to work collaboratively with your elected colleagues, whilst showing leadership, and the ability to work with government and the business community, are critical.”

Prendergast has endorsed Jo Coughlan for mayor. Now that Celia Wade-Brown has withdrawn, there are eight candidates, with Leggett, Lester and Coughlan leading the way in pre-election polls.

Councillors Foster, Ritchie and Young will have their supporters, but are likely to fall by the wayside in the middle stages of counting. Johnson and Overton, newcomers to the race and relatively unknown, will be eliminated first.

No one has won an STV election for mayor in Wellington on the first round of counting, so it will come down to preferences. The candidate who survives the longest and gathers the most second, third, fourth and fifth preferences from the candidates who are eliminated will become the next Mayor of Wellington.

Capital put seven questions to the eight mayoral candidates and sought support/oppose answers. Candidates were advised that long explanations and qualifications to their answers would be edited. Many answers have been trimmed for length.

Skillset needed to be a mayor