All systems go for new mayor Sheryl Mai

By Mike Dinsdale

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Sheryal Mai looks over her first four months on the job. Photo/Michael Cunningham
Sheryal Mai looks over her first four months on the job. Photo/Michael Cunningham

It's been a busy, and sometimes distracting first four months in the job for Whangarei Mayor Sheryl Mai, but she's given herself a pass mark so far and is looking forward to making a real difference over the next two years.

Becoming mayor at the first attempt could be a daunting task, but after two previous terms as a councillor - and having worked for its parks department - Ms Mai was able to get stuck into business quicker than might be expected.

"I wasn't a total novice and it helped a huge amount having that previous council experience. I knew all the jargon and acronyms and how council business is run so that was a big advantage," she says.

"But there were still three years while we were overseas [after she stood down as a councillor in 2010] that I had to catch up on and then dealing with the legacy projects from the previous council."

While she had hoped to focus totally on moving the council forward, there have been distractions. One of Ms Mai's first tasks was running an investigation into allegations raised by a staff member against CEO Mark Simpson.

No evidence of wrongdoing was found.

When it comes to the contentious issue of legal highs, having to deal within the parameters of the Government's Psychoactive Substances Act, which gives local authorities the right to develop a local policy that can determine where such products can be sold, hasn't helped.

Also there is the the Local Government Commission's draft plan to replace Northland's four local authorities with one authority from November next year. "That's another significant issue that we have had to deal with and we knew it was coming, but it wasn't something that we had any control over."

The day after the October election that swept her into power, Ms Mai said a final decision on the controversial Hundertwasser Arts Centre, safety in the Whangarei CBD, reducing debt, creating more employment and fixing the district's roads and footpaths were among her first priorities.

So how is it going, so far?

Hundertwasser Arts Centre

"We have got the centre in our long-term plan and [dropping it] would pre-empt the public having their say on it. There's a possibility there will be a further motion or amendment [on Wednesday] but I'm a little bit disappointed as if the motion succeeds - and we've got funding applications in place for it and $2 million in the bank for the project - it takes the decision out of the public's hands."

If the plan is killed on Wednesday it may never be revived because the Hundertwasser Foundation, which licences Hundertwasser's name and works, may not deal with another organisation, Ms Mai said.

"So even if a benefactor came along and was prepared to fully fund it, the foundation may not want to give them the licence if the council is not involved."

Psychoactive substances (legal highs)

"If banning them was available in the legislation, we would have gone for a total ban. But it's not there. It's up to us and the community to lobby the Government to make that happen. So we've gone for the most restrictions we legally can (a proposed legal high zone that would limit shops to three in the area) and I think the community has been fairly supportive of that, bearing in mind that we cannot ban them."

CBD safety

"We have a working party set up with council and the various social agencies to look at this issue and we are looking at some of the initiatives that have come from groups like retailers, the hospitality industry, police, the visitor sector and others. We are looking at how we can regenerate the CBD and safety is a big part of that, but not just in the CBD, the wider city as well.

"[We] also need to look at what we can put in our annual plan [for safety] and include a budget to make it happen, including things like better lighting, and making sure there are more people in the city and on the streets because that in itself makes people feel safer. The Quest serviced apartments [under construction on the corner of Bank and Cameron St] will have more people staying in the city."

Employment

"The council can't do this by itself and we are talking to others like the Ministry for Social Development and we have got to bring together the big and smaller employers in the district, including the likes of Fonterra, the oil refinery and Northland District Health Board, to see what we can do to help create more jobs.

"As a council we will look at expanding our cadet scheme, which is very successful in helping young people get jobs, and see if we can expand that to other sectors. We've got the ultra-fast broadband cable landing on our doorstep at Bream Bay. We need to focus on the high-paying IT jobs that will bring, but we have to be in a position to take advantage of it."

Council debt

It stands at $148 million external debt and $29 million internal borrowing. The council has a debt ceiling of $161 million of external borrowing.

"I'm looking to reduce the external debt limit by $10 million to $151 million, with no increase at all in internal borrowing. We've got to live within our means and set priorities that the community is happy with. We will not be putting possible property sales in our budget. We will balance our budget [and] won't be spending it before we get it. But we will have a list of projects that will be funded if we do have some property sales."

- NORTHERN ADVOCATE

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