By Daisy Hudson
Nigel Bowen had been in possession of the Timaru district’s mayoral chains for just six weeks when he had to declare a state of emergency.
Heavy rain caused the Rangitata River to flood, essentially cutting the South Island in two and leaving widespread damage in its wake.
“That was challenging,” Mr Bowen said.
As he would learn within a few months, it would not be the only challenge he would face in his first year as mayor.
The Timaru publican was elected to the council in September 2017, in a by-election to replace Tracy Tierney, who resigned to take on a management role.
He then put his hand up for the top job at the 2019 local government elections. He won with 8759 votes, nearly double the number of his nearest challenger Gordon Handy.
While he did not have a huge amount of council experience behind him, he said there was never a right time to take on the mayoralty.
“I’m very lucky there’s great staff at council, and the previous mayor was really great.”
Since then, he has had the tough task of leading the district through the tumultuous year that has been 2020, particularly the Covid-19 pandemic.
Because of its reliance on the primary sector and not on international tourism, the district had fared better than most, he said.
“Timaru will be one of the winners out of this, one of the best provincial towns.
“There’s been a bit of doom and gloom from some people, and there are a few holes [in Stafford St], but some of those holes are starting to fill up.”
It has also been a year of turmoil for local government.
Councils around the country have hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, from Tauranga’s embattled mayor resigning to an independent review of the Invercargill City Council.
Mr Bowen said Timaru’s council had managed to avoid that for two main reasons: understanding its role was governance, not management, and being realistic about the district’s problems.
That did not mean things were always smooth sailing, and councillors did not always agree, he acknowledged.
However, they did not hold grudges.
“I think people are there for the right reasons, they’re there for the community.”
Other than global events and natural disasters, there had been few surprises in the job, he said.
But he had noticed issues regarding communication.
“When you’re a publican, everyone wants to have a chat.
“As soon as you get into the role as an elected member or mayor, people put up walls.
“It’s a shame, as people are as accessible as we were before.