Mayor opens up on her first term in office

By Alexandra Newlove

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The Northern Advocate’s Alexandra Newlove talks to Whangarei Mayor Sheryl Mai about her first term in office and why she’s vying for another term in the top job.
Mayor Sheryl Mai.
Mayor Sheryl Mai.

A cafe interview with Whangarei Mayor Sheryl Mai is interrupted every five minutes or so by people - from the barista to a Buddhist monk - stopping to say hello.

It's the part of the Whangarei mayoralty that gives her the biggest thrill.

"I love it when complete strangers - particularly young people - come up to me and say, 'hey Sheryl Mai'. That's a real treat."

Her commitment is to being a public-facing leader, appearing at everything from children's book readings and barber shop openings, to Chamber of Commerce events and ministerial visits.

"It's absolutely a priority to be available and accept every invitation I possibly could. And I'll absolutely continue that. "

But Ms Mai's mayoral term hasn't all been triumphant ribbon cuttings and hearty handshakes.

The first year was dominated by the Hundertwasser Art Centre debate, which descended into increasing nastiness.

This culminated in a fraught meeting in November 2014, when argumentative councillors voted to proceed with a referendum on the project. After it, a tearful Ms Mai described the conduct as "appalling".

"There are ways to control unruly behaviour, and that was a steep learning curve for me," Ms Mai says now. "We definitely haven't had any meetings like that since. There's much more of a sense of a team."

In 2015, she led another public relations challenge: an average 9 per cent rate rise, followed by annual hikes of about 4 per cent until 2025.

"The stars aligned in the worst possible way," Ms Mai says.

"We knew it impacted people because they came and told us. But then, some commercial rates have gone down, and human nature is such that no-one is going to jump up and say 'woohoo, you've dropped my rates'." She was committed to a "comprehensive review" of the rating system next term. But she stood by the increases.

"When I became mayor, I got advice from [senior staff] that if we continued on the financial path we'd been on, it would be a disservice to future generations.

For us to maintain and replace the assets, we need more income. It's never an easy decision ... But it's the right decision for the long-term sustainability of the district."

- Northern Advocate

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