Greg Brownless was leaving a school event when he spotted a young Tauranga boy by himself with a cricket bat and ball.

"He came from pretty poor circumstances, horrible circumstances. I grabbed the ball and threw it to him a couple of times and he hit it and later apparently was saying 'I met the mayor, he's my best friend'."

At this point, Tauranga's mayor grabs his heart and simulates the noise of it wrenching.

"That's very emotional ... it makes me feel ... even right now."

Advertisement

This weekend marks one year in the job for the first-term mayor and he shares that story as one of the small moments that have moved him the most.

Brownless still describes himself as a "compassionate conservative" - the past 12 months have not changed that.

"What I'm definitely not is a chardonnay-sipping, hand-wringing person that wants to do everything with other people's money. If I see something I'm prepared to put my own efforts and money into it. And I'm not a person that thinks the world owes me a living or anyone else for that matter."

It is clear immediately that Brownless doesn't have the hesitancy, faux confidence or wariness seen in some other politicians when a recording device is placed in front of them.

"You can talk about whatever you like," the 60-year-old says and the offer seems genuine.

Over the hour-long interview, he reveals his No 1 frustration in the job, his view of Tauranga's biggest challenges - and what he has hiding in his cupboards.

Brownless says the council is struggling to pay for the infrastructure needed as the city grows.

The city's growing pains come up a lot.

He wouldn't mind if Tauranga's current growth rate slowed and says that, while he would rather be facing problems of growth than an economy that's going backwards, "you can't pretend that it's easy and at no cost".

He says growth is dictated by the market and at the moment there still seems to be an appetite for Tauranga. He says the council can't really do anything about that.

But would it want to?

"I don't want the place to become unpleasant to live. I mean I live here because it's great. I live here because it's not Auckland. I don't want it to become like that in terms of traffic."

He would prefer the new growth to pay for itself, rather than hiking rates.

That's why Brownless has recently spoken out in support of a New Zealand First election promise regarding the use of GST from tourism.

"I've latched on to that one simply because it looks as though they're in a position to choose the government and therefore in a position to fulfill a promise or two. And I regard that as a promise."

His biggest frustration in the job is bureaucracy.

So many rules and regulations, so many reports, so many different people involved.

"Sometimes you wonder if you had a benevolent dictator, if that wouldn't be a better method. But the trouble is that benevolent dictator would have to be someone we approved of and that is usually not the case." He laughs.

He's careful when listing some of the council's biggest achievements over the past year, which include making progress with the museum, addressing issues with building consents, and the "considerable progress" with the new Southern Pipeline for sewage.

The council is also looking towards the Waiari water supply project to service new areas of Papamoa. "Trying to keep on top of that," Brownless says.

But is he enjoying the job?

"Yeah, I am. Overall. I've got to say that you have your headaches and probably the biggest one is if you can't help people."

Over the hour-long interview, Tauranga mayor Greg Brownless reveals his number one frustration in the job, his view of Tauranga's biggest challenges - and what he has hiding in his cupboards. Photo/George Novak
Over the hour-long interview, Tauranga mayor Greg Brownless reveals his number one frustration in the job, his view of Tauranga's biggest challenges - and what he has hiding in his cupboards. Photo/George Novak

On Willow St in central Tauranga, down the road from the council office where the interview is taking place, a man is sitting on the ground between shops.

A suitcase is next to him.

"I would rather beg than steal" his cardboard sign says. He wishes passers-by a good day, some of them council workers - lanyards visible as they make their way to the office.

Homelessness is something on Brownless' mind.

"I believe it's got worse. Just walking down the street ... I know it's got worse."

He has people ringing and emailing him telling him he needs to create a bylaw to ban begging and the homeless on the street. He gets "a bit aggravated" by that.

"Well, it's just not going to work. They say if you do, the police will shift those people on, and when I talk to the police...well, where do they shift them on to? People think there's an easy solution. There isn't."

Brownless says the council has to think outside the box to address homelessness.

He mentions a TedX talk he saw recently by the mayor of Albuquerque in New Mexico.

The American mayor talked about how the council had a spare van and went around the city's homeless and rough sleepers in the morning asking them if they wanted some work for the day.

The initiative has reduced the homelessness issue in Albuquerque and Brownless says he is quite keen to look at it. "It was quite inspirational actually."

It's a quirky idea. But Brownless' CV is quite quirky for that of a mayor - Contiki tour guide, funeral home owner and operator, teacher. He says those roles have prepared him well for this one.

"I think I've got compassion for people in difficult situations where they can't help themselves and I try and help them out. I think I have a fair idea what pleases people and what worries them. I'd like to think that people see me as someone that practises what I preach because that was always the thing I had with politicians."

Brownless plays the accordion, has been involved in performing arts and has even appeared in a couple of ballets.

He has played the accordion at two functions since being elected but has not done any plays or musicals yet. He is quite keen to change that in the remaining two years of his term. "It would need to be something not too big."

Tauranga mayor Greg Brownless says the council has to think outside the box to address homelessness. Photo/George Novak
Tauranga mayor Greg Brownless says the council has to think outside the box to address homelessness. Photo/George Novak

His office is pretty basic and there is no standout feature. No hidden bathrooms or dressing rooms like in Auckland?

"No, unfortunately not," he laughs.

He gets up to open some cupboards, revealing some kind of formal red robe that apparently he never wears.

There are gumboots and Christmas decorations and a hard hat. A high-vis vest.

"The gumboots are steel-capped in case anybody gets out of hand," Brownless jokes.

No coffee machine? "No, because I don't drink hot drinks."

And he has made no changes or renovations since moving in.

"This is it. I'm not big into surroundings or things like that. I changed the sign on the door to my name."

Tauranga mayor Greg Brownless' office is pretty basic and there is no stand out features. Photo/George Novak
Tauranga mayor Greg Brownless' office is pretty basic and there is no stand out features. Photo/George Novak

When he was first elected, Brownless' partner, Li-Jong Liao, 53, was said to be implementing a stricter diet on the new mayor. He lost 9kg in two months.

His weight now fluctuates "a kilogram or two" thanks to the tempting food at events and he has stopped the yoga that Liao introduced to help him relax.

"I don't like sitting, stretching, I get bored for a start but probably two or three nights a week I manage to go for a walk down near where we live for half an hour."

Brownless later shows me his packed lunch, made by Liao.

"See here's my lunch ... what have we got here? Oh my goodness. Rice and vegetables. It doesn't look good but it tastes good."

The pair started living together in Otumoetai fulltime for the first time last year but Brownless is quick to laugh off a question about marriage.

"Oh no, I can't possibly comment ... I'll leave that one out of it. Now I'm blushing."

Brownless doesn't have any children and Liao's are aged 21, 25 and 27 - two of them are overseas on their OE and the other is away at university.

Liao goes with Brownless to most events and enjoys that side of things, he says.

His days and working week are long. While Liao "always wants to see [him] more" he thinks she will support him if he was to run for mayor again.

Brownless will make that decision closer to the time but says "I'm thinking yes".

Another term as mayor might be needed to achieve everything he wants, to cut through the bureaucracy and red tape that frustrate him so much.

And it's not just the big issues and targets on his mind.

It's some of the smaller encounters, like meeting that young school student, that have made a lasting impression. "I just had so much fun that lunchtime."

Brownless plans to return to the school and play a game of cricket with the boy and is going to bring Northern Districts' Bharat Popli, a professional cricketer and a friend of Liao's, who lives with the couple during the cricket season.

"It's those little things that often stay with you."