Bernard Orsman

Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

New broom for city hall

Stephen Town, the Super City's new chief executive, is a well-qualified, model public servant who prefers a low-key approach and is adamant his role is to observe politics, not participate in it.

Stephen Town is the only member of staff directly accountable to the Auckland Council. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Stephen Town is the only member of staff directly accountable to the Auckland Council. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Stephen Town, the new chief executive of Auckland Council, says the Len Brown sex scandal is not an appropriate subject for him to discuss with a newspaper.

Mr Town was appointed to the role at the height of the mayoral saga that engulfed the city in unprecedented controversy.

In his first full media interview since starting work on January 15, Mr Town is adamant his role is to observe politics and not participate in it.

"I was lucky enough to be offered the job in early November and was obviously aware of things that were going on, but, you know, life carries on."

He says it is for other people to judge whether the council has been set off course by the events of last year.

"It's not an appropriate conversation for me to have with anyone ... I'm essentially a public servant who is trying to support politicians to be as successful as they can be."

If staff ask about the events of last year, his message is to stay focused on the job and keep aiming to do outstanding things on behalf of the people of Auckland.

Outstanding easily applies to Mr Town, a 54-year-old with 35 years' public service in education, local government and transport roles.

Auckland is his third stint as a council boss.

He was chief executive of Franklin District Council between 1998 and 2002 and chief executive of Tauranga City Council between 2002 and 2010 before four years as northern regional director of the New Zealand Transport Agency.

Word has it he was the outstanding contender to replace businessman Doug McKay, who steered the council through the first three years, merging eight councils into one and laying the Super City foundations.

People speak highly of Mr Town, a smallish, businesslike figure who prefers a low-key, no-fuss approach to the limelight.

"He is the absolute model of a public servant. He is not only super bright, but very astute and a humble man. He is going to be so good for the city," says one observer.

Another says Mr Town is highly intelligent and great at playing the long tactical game - invaluable skills in the complex web of the Super City and Auckland-Wellington relations.

He can also be firm, as the Herald found when questioning him on the mayor's affair.

"You need to change the topic of questions and talk to me about what are my priorities as chief executive and what am I here to try to do," he said.

Mr Town, the only member of staff directly accountable to the council, has agreed four priorities with his employer: putting the needs of ratepayers and citizens centre-stage; making the various arms of council work better; building partnerships; and getting things done.

The biggest challenge on the horizon is a new 10-year budget that comes into effect next year.

It has to address what Auditor-General Lyn Provost reminded Mayor Brown and Mr Town of in a letter last month - community concerns about rate increases greater than inflation and rising debt.

The budget is a minefield of ticking bombs. It must include a funding package for the $2.86 billion City Rail Link if it is to proceed. There will be tough decisions to axe or delay projects. Politics will be at the fore.

Mr Town says a council officer's role is to give good advice and make sure councillors have the right information and options to make decisions to consult with the community.

"It is really important that people have a clear picture that the council gets to reset those things every three years," says Mr Town, who says there is a high level of awareness by the mayor and councillors about how difficult the challenge will be.

Mr Town, who says he is impressed by Auckland's post-Rugby World Cup vibrancy, is fine with a two-year fixed salary of $630,000, a big drop from the $768,740 paid to his predecessor Doug McKay.

He does not have a council credit card and pays for his own cellphone and calls, car and petrol.

If work is running smoothly, Mr Town commutes home to Tauranga at the weekend to spend time and relax with his six children and two grandchildren.

"I do not play golf."

The upper North Island climate also plays a big part in his life. "Water, coast and harbour, sunshine and warmth. I'm a bit of a softie in that space."

Stephen Town brings a wealth of local government and transport experience to the job. He gives some thoughts on three transport issues

City Rail Link

"We have a well-understood difference in timing and preferences between Auckland and Government on the City Rail Link. It seems to me that that will work itself out because the gap is not big. In the end people will work their way through that difference because it is the sensible thing to do. This particular Government have said they support the City Rail Link. They just want to have a longer conversation about the right time to open it.

"I don't know [if the mayor will meet a start date of 2016]. I'm not into making predictions about whether we will hit a particular date in a particular year."

SkyPath Harbour bridge cycle/walkway

"SkyPath is continuing its progress towards the trust [planning a public-private partnership], lodging resource consent later in May. The council's thinking on SkyPath is that it does look like a project that could largely be financed by an external entity and, hopefully, will end up being a good demonstration project around how to pay for things in a different way.

"Our main focus on behalf of council is to make sure that the risk council are thinking about, that they are satisfied there is a low risk of failure and a high chance of success."

Cycling

"Around New Zealand we have seen a number of cycling fatalities and people really feel those tragedies. In the past 12 months there has been a bit of a groundswell of opinion that everyone needs to do more to promote cycling and the investment into making our cycle routes as safe as they can possibly be.

"International research does point to the need to get across a threshold of visibility of cyclists on particular routes ... clearly in the cities that have been most successful, getting commuter cyclists onto off-road and segregated routes is the preference and that takes more investment.

"There is certainly an appetite [for more investment in Auckland], but we will have to wait for the mayor to table the [new 10-year] budget proposal and see where cycling features in the list of preferences."

Stephen Town's jobs

• 1980-1987: Wanganui Education Board
• 1987-1998: Wanganui Regional Community Polytechnic
• 1998-2002: Chief executive, Franklin District Council
• 2002-2010: Chief executive, Tauranga City Council
• 2010-2014: Northern regional director, New Zealand Transport Agency
• 2014: Chief executive, Auckland Council (appointed for five years).

- NZ Herald

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