Stuart Crosby is ready for change

By Michele Hunter

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Michele Hunter talks to Tauranga City Council's outgoing mayor Stuart Crosby about his time in Tauranga's top job
Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby and his partner Deborah. Photo/Andrew Warner
Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby and his partner Deborah. Photo/Andrew Warner

If someone had told a teenage Stuart Crosby that he would one day be mayor of New Zealand's fifth largest city, it's unlikely he would have agreed.

Once a shy boy, a penchant for politics and the faith of experienced former city leaders forced him out of his shell and eventually into the mayoralty, where he has spent the last 12 years leading the city through turbulent times.

But after four consecutive terms, it's time for the 60-year-old to pass on the mayoral chains and let someone else lead the rapidly growing city into the future, he says.

Crosby predicted about 10 candidates would line up to replace him, and he wasn't far off. The vote is set to be spread across 11 mayoral hopefuls. He urges the community to take time over choosing their votes both for mayor and councillors.

"You can have a capable mayor and completely dysfunctional council, which makes it very difficult for the mayor. You spend a lot of time tidying up after them," he said. "Look at their credentials and where they come from.

If you don't know them, look at their background," he said.

He was criticised for announcing his imminent departure in February 2014 but assured his critics he would work as hard on the last day of his final term as he did on day one. "Four (terms) is a maximum, I just turned 60," he said. "The city needs a new face and new energy, just a different dimension. Tauranga is in a really good place to launch and become a big city."

Crosby stressed the importance of the relationship now fostered with the Western Bay of Plenty District. "We rely heavily on the Western Bay for our success, our economies are just intertwined," he said.

He is himself a Bay local through and through. His family moved to Papamoa from Gisborne in 1966 where they started the Papamoa Beach Resort Holiday Park, which remains in the family.

Back then a trip to Tauranga City was an occasion, calling for a ride on the railcar. "It was a big adventure. You got dressed up - shoes and socks, black pants, white shirt even," he said. The culture of Mount Maunganui, Papamoa and Tauranga were all different, something he says remains today and something he would like to see continue.

It was in the Papamoa Tavern that Crosby's launch into local body politics was sparked. He was selling raffle tickets for the Papamoa Lions' Club and started telling members of the Papamoa Community Council the error of their ways.

A Confucius classroom was opened at Tauranga Intermediate by the chairman of the Confucius Institute Tony Browne (left) and Tauranga mayor Stuart Crosby. Photo/George Novak
A Confucius classroom was opened at Tauranga Intermediate by the chairman of the Confucius Institute Tony Browne (left) and Tauranga mayor Stuart Crosby. Photo/George Novak

They suggested he stand for the council and he was one of 11 candidates who stood for 11 spots in 1986. The council met monthly at 4pm in the Papamoa Playcentre with the three-hour meeting, then followed by a couple of beers.

In 1989 the Tauranga and Mount Maunganui District Councils amalgamated, along with Bethlehem and Papamoa Beach, which were then parts of the Tauranga County Council.

That same year, Crosby won a seat on the Tauranga District Council - well supported by then Mayor Nobby Clark and a group of seasoned councillors. He based his political persona on the first chairman of the new council's policy committee, Norm McMaster.

"I liked his style which was firm but fair," he said. "It was my personality as well in a way." At 33, he was chairman of the regulatory committee which launched him into Tauranga's political scene.

He then become chairman of the policy committee and deputy mayor to Noel Pope. He enjoyed the deputy's role and said it "gave him an inkling" that he could do the top job.

But come election day it wasn't to be and he was beaten by Jan Beange.

That was a bit of a shock but it was a good thing because to a degree I was in the shadow of the mayor of the day as deputy.
Stuart Crosby

Three years rolled around and Crosby had his chance again. He succeeded - by around the same 1000 vote margin he had lost by. At the time Baywave, which Crosby went on to open, was deemed a white elephant. Beange also had a very "forthright style", said Crosby.

Each of Crosby's first three terms were marked by significant events for the city. Eight months into the mayoralty the floods of May 2005 hit Tauranga, creating the city's biggest natural disaster of modern times. "I knew that morning we were in trouble," he said.

The council knew there was flooding, what it wasn't anticipating was the major slips that followed it. Forty homes were lost and 700 people displaced. "I think the organisation did a tremendous job, under resourced, to move quickly and make the right decisions through that event," he said.

Mayor of Tauranga Stuart Crosby hopes to have more time for relaxing. Photo/George Novak
Mayor of Tauranga Stuart Crosby hopes to have more time for relaxing. Photo/George Novak

As people came to terms with the loss of their homes, Crosby needed to find empathy. "The key to that is listen to them," he said. Councillor Mary Dillon told him: "If you're struggling to understand where people are coming from, stand in their shoes for a few minutes." It's advice he has taken through his political career.

During his second mayoral term the global financial crisis hit and heavily affected a council investing in infrastructure. People stopped coming to Tauranga and the debt was significant but pushing on meant being ready when the boom came - and it did come, said Crosby. "When it came out it came out in a hurry and we were ready to go."

His third term was marked by the Rena grounding. He had flown out to Wellington that morning and saw the then upright ship on the reef. What he didn't know was that the reef had ripped a hole in it and one of New Zealand's worst maritime disasters was about to unfold.

When I started they had no say in anything, These days the apathy is not there and a sense of localism is blossoming in the community. People want to be involved at a level in their own communities' outcomes and development
Stuart Crosby

When news broke, Crosby caught the next plane home. The clean-up was lead by Maritime New Zealand but the role of the community became ever increasing. "I knew the minute that oil started to wash up on our beach, it was going to be our problem," he said.

The emotion in his face is clear as he recalls the moment he first saw the waves of black oil rolling onto his beloved Papamoa Beach. The council was told to shut the beach but he knew that wouldn't wash with locals. They wanted to help and at its peak there was a database of 6000 volunteers ready to assist with the clean up.

They had trained each other, 10 were trained who trained another 10 each and so on until volunteers armed with sieves and toothbrushes cleaned the oil off their beach. "It will be part of Tauranga's history, forever," he said.

So far his fourth term has been relatively event-free - at least in his professional life. Two-and-a-half years ago Crosby split with his wife of nearly 30 years, Lesley. He described Lesley as a "tremendous supporter" of his political career and said his daughter, Jessica, 29, had known nothing else.

"The broader family as well, brothers and sisters, you need that. Particularly when things are challenging," he said. "It's not easy when you're in the limelight a lot and it's negative," he said.

He recently moved into a new home in Papamoa with partner Deborah Ellison. Being recognised wherever he goes in the region has never bothered him too much - he's used to being stared at in the supermarket or asked for his autograph at schools.

Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby and Commander Simon Griffiths. HMNZS Te Mana Charter Parade honouring the enduring relationship between Tauranga and the Royal New Zealand Navy. Photo/Andrew Warner
Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby and Commander Simon Griffiths. HMNZS Te Mana Charter Parade honouring the enduring relationship between Tauranga and the Royal New Zealand Navy. Photo/Andrew Warner

He makes a point of looking people in the eye, whether he knows them or not, and saying hello. Crosby says the highlight of being mayor was doing the little things that made a big difference to the lives of people in the community.

"Those little things - whether it's a tree or a playground - those are the parts that I really enjoyed," he said. He also had the privilege and enjoyment of opening and watching people use a host of city amenities from the Papamoa Community Centre to the library to the ASB Arena.

It's all a far cry from the once "seriously shy individual". Becoming mayor was the last thing on his mind as a student at Te Puke High School. He says he grew out of the shyness and it was people like former mayor Noel Pope who gave him the confidence to have a go and ultimately succeed in the public eye.

The pair shared a common background in the electrical trade. Crosby left high school in 1974 and took up an apprenticeship with the Tauranga Electric Power Board (now TrustPower).

Those little things - whether it's a tree or a playground - those are the parts that I really enjoyed.
Stuart Croxby

He then left for his big OE in 1978, travelling around Europe with a mate in a Volkswagon van. He lived in London for a few months before deciding he better make some money and moved to Saudi Arabia for a job putting high voltage cables into an industrial subdivision.

His father got sick and he returned home in 1981 to help out at the camping ground.

Plans to head to the United Arab Emirates were put on hold when he was asked to look after a business, Papamoa Electrical Services, for a few months while the owner went to Australia. The owner never returned and Crosby owned the business for 20 years. "I love the trades," he said.

He then started Accolade Homes with a partner in 1998.

Crosby hopes his days in local government are far from over and is standing for the Bay of Plenty Regional Council.

"I don't want to throw it all away, 30 years of being a representative," he said. He and Deborah, who works as a pharmacy technician, are also considering starting a small business of some kind.

He wants to devote some time each week to a not-for-profit organisation he feels passionate about. The 150-year commemorations of the Battles of Gate Pa and Te Ranga sparked a strong interest in the city's heritage and volunteering at The Elms was a possibility, he said.

He is more confident now than ever that in three to four years Tauranga will have the museum it is waiting for.

He also has a 1965 Ford Thunderbird ready for the next circuit racing round in November. "That's just a few weekends away every year to relax," he said. He plans to spend more time with family and friends, have the odd round of golf, go fishing, "before we all get too old and doddery", he said. "I've been very neglectful of my friends in terms of time."

One thing he will be is busy - concerned that an abrupt stop from his 50 to 70- hour working week could be bad for his health. "I like putting things together, having a plan and putting things together; it's just in my DNA," he said.

Crosby's advice to the new mayor and council is to collaborate - with other councils but also other agencies on transport, health, education. "You never achieve anything on your own."

Council meeting. Stuart Crosby. Photo/George Novak
Council meeting. Stuart Crosby. Photo/George Novak

One of the toughest challenges in decision-making was working out what the silent majority wanted, he said. It was important not to be swayed by the 10 people objecting to an idea, without considering the wider opinion of the city.

Local government worldwide was going though a revolution of community empowerment, he said. Where once decisions were made in council chambers alone, community engagement was now an important part of the process.

"When I started they had no say in anything," he said. These days the apathy is not there and a sense of localism is blossoming in the community. "People want to be involved at a level in their own communities' outcomes and development."

Patience is a virtue required for the role, he said. "If you're not a patient person, don't go into this business."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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