The highs and lows of life at the top - interview with Peter Guerin

By Matthew Martin


Peter Guerin had his last day as Rotorua District Council chief executive yesterday after 11 years in the role. Rotorua Daily Post senior reporter Matthew Martin spoke to him about the highs and lows of the job and the future of our city.

The view from Peter Guerin's office has to be one of the most pleasant sights you can imagine.

Looking out across the lush green grass of the Government Gardens down to the Bath House and Rotorua Museum is something to behold.

But one day, he thinks, the building he has worked in for the past decade or so would make a great hotel, five stars - complete with casino.

But more about that later.

For the past 11 years, Peter Guerin has held the top job at the Rotorua District Council.

But in what came as a shock to many, councillors did not renew his contract this year, opting to choose a new chief executive in former Rotorua man Geoff Williams.

Disappointed?

"Absolutely. That they didn't want me to do another five years.

"But I've come to the conclusion there is a bit of a shelf life for a CEO in local government with any one council, partly due to the five-year contract.

"Whether there is a mood for change in Rotorua, it's hard to say, but I think if the elections were not three months away it may have been different. But time will tell."

He says he does not have any immediate plans for his future in the workplace and will spend time visiting three of his four children in Perth.

"I've decided to take some time to clear my head, think about what's important.

"I do still enjoy local government and there are some private sector opportunities I am exploring at the moment."

Of all council staff, Mr Guerin's was the only position that was open for public scrutiny and there was a large public outcry when he received a $67,000 salary increase - recommended and approved by the independent Remuneration Authority - in the 2007/08 financial year.

"The one part of local government you have to accept is you are in a goldfish bowl and everybody else thinks they can do it better than you.

"There are some people with some great ideas out there and there are others who have a very shallow understanding of how local government works.

"Sometimes I feel a bit precious about comments people make, but it's part of the job, and if you didn't like it you wouldn't be here."

Will he miss his old job?

"Enormously.

"Lots of people use the old Maori proverb [which ends] he tangata, he tangata, he tangata - it is people, it is people, it is people.

"That's the thing I will miss the most. There are some really good folks here, who have done some really great things. I certainly will miss them."

He says he has few regrets but the one thing that kept him up at night was Rotorua's airport.

"Economic modelling suggested it would be self funding. Also, we were given confidence by the regional council they would give us some funding, as it would be a regional airport too.

"But it never came to pass, so it's been quite a financial hurdle for us. The biggest disappointment was that transtasman services didn't take off.

"It was a tragedy of timing really, with the global financial crisis and also the monopolistic nature of Air New Zealand."

But he is confident the airport will succeed.

"What really worried me was the knock-on effect it had on the council as a whole. It has quite an unsettling effect on the whole organisation.

"I regret we didn't get the process right and had to pay $196,000 to cut some trees down out there either.

"I also enjoyed my time with Te Arawa, but was quite sad when we stood on a hand grenade in the last couple of months with the decision out of the Environment Court.

"I'd like to think it was an aberration, rather than anything that is culturally wrong in this organisation."

However, he points to the Energy Events Centre, lakes water quality and a new focus on economic prosperity in the district as some of his highlights.

"Another was the goal to get the entire organisation together on one occasion and honour some of our stars, and identify an employee of the year."

He even made an original rap and performed it at last year's staff function - complete with baseball cap and basketball top.

"I have no rhythm at all, and can't sing to save my life, but it was fun."

He said the partnership between the council, the regional council and the Te Arawa Lakes Trust to clean up Rotorua's lakes was a special one.

"Convincing Government to invest $72 million into the project was a great achievement.

"The building of the events centre and our partnerships with the Rotorua Trust and Pukeroa [Oruawhata] - a $28 million project we would have had no show to commission if not for that partnership." The issue of debt has recently been publicly debated.

Mr Guerin said he was surprised some "quite well informed people are worried about this".

"It's interesting the paranoia around debt has really taken off. I have taken those concerns seriously and we put measures in place in our annual plan regarding debt reduction.

"Without the airport and council's input into sewerage schemes, our debt is very sustainable. Our debt will come down quite quickly when people start paying those loans off and the airport is much more profitable again."

So what can we look forward to in the future and what are the biggest issues Rotorua faces in the next 10 to 15 years?

"I look out my window and I see a fantastic view - and I think there could be a much better use of this site.

"It could be sold and used for a hotel, making sure Rotorua has a casino.

"For an iconic visitor destination, it's the one thing we lack."

He is also confident there will be changes to the structure of local government, but there are some major hurdles to overcome in the Bay of Plenty.

"If they can sort out the identity between Rotorua and Tauranga, then I can see amalgamation. Rotorua is the destination and people want to be greeted by our own mayor, not a CEO or town clerk.

"I'd also like to see more investment locally, two five-star hotels and a CBD that is fit for purpose."

He believes Rotorua is in a great position to become even bigger as an events destination.

"I'd also like to see the relationship between iwi and the community grow and get better, along with the safety of our city."

With local body elections coming up in October, Mr Guerin would not be drawn on who he supports.

"Some are saying it's time for a change but, there has been very little change in leadership in Rotorua in the last 40 years.

"John Keaney, Grahame Hall and Kevin [Winters] have shaped this district over a long period of time.

"I sense you won't see too much turnover of the CEO in the next 10 years either.

"But I fear for local government across the country, with voter turnout spiralling downward.

"Voters have to identify 12 people they would like to elect. I don't think there would be anybody not closely associated with local government who could name all 12 of our councillors.

"As a city, we don't particularly like change ... for the majority of people in our city, local government is not very important.

"But I wish Kevin every success. I have enjoyed working with him, he puts a lot of effort into the job.

"He was different from previous mayors.

"He has a style that acknowledges our youth, who are the future of our city.

"He is also a very outcomes-focused guy - he gets on and does it."

At a recent leaving function, his final tongue-in-cheek statement to councillors received a chuckle or two: "May you all receive the luck you deserve at the ballot box in October."

- ROTORUA DAILY POST

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