Queenstown Lakes District Council chief executive Debra Lawson tells Mountain Scene her priorities four months into the role.
Mountain Scene: Are QLDC staff numbers, including quangos, too high, too few or about right?
Debra Lawson: There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s my responsibility to work with council to provide value for money for ratepayers. The work to review capital expenditure, major capital works and operational costs has already begun. Our annual plan has been established on the basis of saving $1.07 million in rate-funded operating costs. Staff structures are formally approved to deliver the service ambitions outlined in our annual and long-term plans. Some of the most intensively-staffed services are those most valued by the community, including the horticultural teams and the early-morning street cleaners we call our town custodians.
MS: What are QLDC’s strengths and weaknesses? Will you make drastic changes and, if so, what?
DL: It’s my view that to effectively change any organisation, you have to understand the things that work well, the things that the community and other stakeholders value, and build upon these as a basis for change and improvement. I’m not afraid of taking tough decisions where necessary [but] I’ll only do so based on understanding and evidence.
MS: What are the district’s key challenges?
DL: To succeed, we need to look after the health and economic wellbeing of our whole community. We need to continue to focus on environmental sustainability with a particular emphasis on our water resource. And from listening to people, I’d like to improve our relationship with the community, especially around building trust.
MS: Year after year, ratepayers face inexorable rates increases – can you ever envisage a year when rates won’t go up?
DL: The level of rates stems from political decisions reflecting both community desires and perhaps, more importantly, central government requirements. The council’s challenge is to make rates fair for today’s community and reasonable for future communities.
MS: How will your management style differ from your predecessor’s?
DL: I’ve not made a study of Duncan Field’s style. For my part, I lead by being forward-looking, asking the right questions and making decisions that are informed by evidence and stakeholder feedback.
MS: How’s your relationship with mayor Clive Geddes?
DL: Clive has been very generous with his time and a good coach. In my view we’re working well as a team. He has strong values and vision.
MS: Coming from Britain, where CCTV cameras are everywhere, what are your views on installing them here?
DL: CCTV is part of a tool kit which also includes improved CBD lighting and tackling bad behaviour. The council’s community guides and town custodians do a good job in this respect, however it’s also up to others to do their bit and send out a very clear message about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.
MS: Is Queenstown sufficiently geared up for growth? What are your top five priorities?
DL: It’s early days but I’ve been impressed with how advanced this council’s understanding of growth is. It’s a credit to the council that it set about understanding growth almost a decade ago. Priorities? Affordability, accountability to our diverse community, continued improvement of services, environmental sustainability, including development growth, and managing our water resource.
MS: What do you miss about the UK?
DL: My family and old friends, premier league football – particularly Chelsea FC – vintage clothes fairs, Marks and Spencer, Borough Market and the Tate Modern.
MS: Have you bought a house here yet?
DL: No, I’m renting in Kelvin Heights. I’ve been looking at property but have had so little time.
MS: Do you plan on doing a triathlon, given you’ve competed for Great Britain in the sport?
DL: No plans at this time – I’m reasonably fit but not trained at present. This winter, I want to enjoy living in the mountains and plan to spend my leisure time on the ski slopes.