Councillors `not visible enough’

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Long-serving . . . Former Timaru mayor and councillor Ray Bennett says councillors are not visible enough compared to the past. PHOTO: CHRIS TOBIN

by Chris Tobin

New Zealand’s longest-serving former local body politician says incoming councillors after this year’s election must be prepared to compromise and accept they are just one of 11 votes.

“People stand in local body elections who are well-meaning,” Ray Bennett, in his 80s, a former Timaru mayor who served a New Zealand record 50 years on the council, said.

“They say ‘I’ll do this and that’ but they have to realise they are just one of 11 votes.

“Local bodies are all about teamwork.

Ray Bennett’s NZ local body representation record

1956: Elected to Timaru Borough Council.

1971: Appointed mayor, serves a year. At next election, returns to council seat.

1977: Wins mayoralty.

1980: Re-elected mayor..

1982: Stands down from council after being appointed Timaru Herald.general manager.

1986: Returns to council.

1989: Contests mayoralty and loses, remains as councillor.

2010: Loses seat on council.

“You’ve got to be prepared to compromise to get things through; you’re dealing with 11 people with different aspirations but you’ve got to get them united even though it may not be what you want.

“It’s the overall good of the district that you are looking for. In other words, don’t be dogmatic, be reasonable.”

Mr Bennett said he would not comment on council policy nor did he make submissions or write to newspapers on council matters, but he found one aspect of the present councillors that differed from earlier times.

“The councillors are not visible enough. The question is who are the councillors?

“I’ve difficulty remembering many of them. They seem to have lost the visual impact.

“When I was mayor or a councillor people knew me. This isn’t being unkind or critical but they haven’t a visible presence which is very important.

“And if you can talk with the constituents, you do really know what is going on the community.”

Mr Bennett was first elected to the then Timaru Borough Council in 1956, aged 24, when a councillor’s role was voluntary and unpaid.

Big change came with local government reorganisation in 1989 when Temuka and Geraldine boroughs as well as Strathallan County came into a bigger Timaru District Council.

“It moved from hands-on to a governance role. In the hands-on role, for example, the director of the museum would be appointed by a committee of councillors.

Prized artefact…Ray Bennett holds a Tibetan prayer wheel, one of many items he has collected over the years. PHOTO: CHRIS TOBIN

“Now, under the new regime, the town clerk (chief executive) appoints all staff.

“I think as we’ve got bigger it has worked better. When you get a certain size it gives you a few more teeth.”

Mr Bennett’s first stint at the mayoralty came in 1971 for a year when he took over from Durham Dowell after Mr Dowell shifted to Christchurch.

Then he won the mayoralty in 1977 and held it for five years until a possible conflict after being appointed Timaru Herald manager saw him step down in 1982 before returning to the council in 1986.

He doubted whether his record of 50 years would be beaten.

“I’ve been very lucky but I didn’t start out to achieve records. I’m interested in doing the job.

“Some councillors protest strongly on certain matters. I’m interested in results

“You go to the public every three years and they’ve got to support you. The odds of doing it (beating 50 years) are remote in the future.”

Being transparent allowed him to get repeatedly re-elected, Mr Bennett believed.

“When I joined it was a ‘closed shop’. I had to crusade for open government.

“The councillors are not visible enough. The question is who are the councillors?”

“On Caroline Bay, they had ticket parking but it cost more to pay the man to collect the tickets than the money council got out of it. It took years to change it.

“In committee business, they’d do something in committee (public excluded) and not tell the people.”

He recalled terrible rows on the council, not like today’s sedate scene.

The future of Timaru’s gasworks raised emotions and drew a large number of the public to one council meeting.

“We had a sergeant and a constable downstairs and a policeman upstairs. What you’ve got now is nothing. It was big stuff, emotions were so strong.

“The atmosphere was so tense you could cut it with a knife.”

2019 local body elections

August 16: Nominations close noon.

August 21: Candidates named.

September 20-25: Voting papers delivered.

October 12: Polling day.

In this period, motions taken in committee would be written out by the councillors which were not supposed to be kept. On one occasion discussion took place to decide what to do with the pieces of paper.

The mayor of the time ended the discussion. In full robes, he came down from his seat, set fire to the pieces of paper and then trampled on the ashes.

In the past 12 years, Mr Bennett has travelled overseas extensively but a virus caught at Vanuatu when on a cruise this winter has laid him low in recent weeks and he is still recovering.

Apart from this, his doctor said he was “as fit as a trout,” and he hoped to visit Tibet at some stage.

Since leaving the council, he has also added to his vast collection of stamps, coins (the oldest dates back to 300BC), mail from the 1400s and other multiple items.

“As I am getting older, people say I should sell. I don’t sell. I want to acquire more.

“And I’ve no intention of vultures coming in when I pass on. I’ve seen too much of that.

“It will go to the city. I collect to protect and conserve.”