Comment: People picking over Dawn Baxendale’s four-year tenure at Christchurch’s city council will be asking ‘why?’ again and again.

Why did it employ her as chief executive in the first place?

Baxendale came from the poorly performing Birmingham City Council in the United Kingdom, which struggled to provide adequate services, and handled industrial disputes badly.

Staff morale was low, the council was mired in a financial crisis, and it was panned for secrecy.

These problems had persisted for years, well before Baxendale got there, but its performance had become so worrying it required central government intervention – an improvement panel that Baxendale made clear she didn’t want to continue.

The panel praised her hands-on approach, and clear direction.

But, under her watch, a pay dispute led to a strike and rubbish piling up on Birmingham’s streets, and the council had a third warning from auditors about managing financial risks. Then, after 16 months, she jumped ship to Christchurch.

A Birmingham Mail writer said her tenure was “surprisingly anonymous”.

Cost-cutting was high on the agenda, she said during her first week in Christchurch.

“I don’t want to sit in this office, [I’ll be] absolutely out and about,” she told The Press in October 2019.

Why didn’t she do that?

Staff surveys described Baxendale and her executive team as invisible, arrogant and even a toxic mess. One anecdote about a meet-and-greet in 2022 noted that Baxendale and newly minted Mayor Phil Mauger distributed sweets and retired to the café to drink coffee.

Overloaded and underpaid, staff left in droves – 1142 permanent staff, out of a total workforce of about 2500, over the first three years of her tenure.

Council executives created an action plan, including a review of pay and benefits that is not yet complete. It was meant to be completed by March of this year.

Baxendale received a $16,000 increase last year, taking her salary to $549,000.

Despite low morale, and some staff taking second jobs to make ends meet, Baxendale’s council failed them.

Why haven’t staff been listened to? Why have their problems been put on the backburner?

An artist’s impression of Te Kaha, Canterbury’s multi-use arena. Image: Christchurch City Council

Richardson, who’s now acting chief executive, is the only surviving general manager of six that were there when Baxendale arrived.

Gone are Carolyn Gallagher (consenting and compliance), Brendan Anstiss (strategy and transformation), Dave Adamson (city services), Carole Bellette (finance and commercial) and Leonie Rae (corporate services) – most of them in a restructure that halved the executive team.

Since then, Miles McConway (resources) came and went, after reportedly refusing to get a Covid-19 vaccination.

Where mayhem meets mystery is the fate of Jane Davis (infrastructure, planning and regulatory services), who was suddenly “off work” at the same time as head of Three Waters Helen Beaumont. Both resigned in July, and the circumstances are unclear.

Upset staff demanded to know why. Both managers were scrubbed from the phone list, before being restored, because of a technical glitch.

As reported last week, chief financial officer Leah Scales, the general manager of resources, is on sick leave.

With Baxendale’s resignation, that whittles the executive leadership to two people – Richardson, who has picked up Davis’s job as well, and assistant chief executive Lynn McClelland.

That’s not to mention the huge turnover in middle management, including the human resources department, whose boss, Peter Keegan, is also on leave. (His predecessor, Jane O’Toole, lasted just 18 months.)

Clean-up job

The irony is Baxendale was employed to clean up a mess in Christchurch.

Karleen Edwards, her predecessor, left under a cloud after Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier’s investigation found the council’s top staff manipulated reports and kept negative information secret from the public and councillors.

Her council also failed the public with its “appalling” response to the wastewater treatment plant fire in 2021.

While the council’s focus was keeping the plant operating, the stench from the plant made people in nearby neighbourhoods unwell, and damaged their houses and cars.

Baxendale, the skipper who was meant to be righting the ship, didn’t front the council’s apology in October. That was left to the general manager of citizens and community, Mary Richardson.

Earlier in the year, it was Richardson who stood up for staff, not Baxendale, after Mayor Phil Mauger accused them of “running amok” over the installation of a temporary cycleway near Hagley Park. Other councillors added they’d been “sneaky” and “devious”.

Later, the chief executive did write an email to all staff talking of her disappointment at the comments, but only a day after Newsroom asked for copies of her correspondence.

When Baxendale intervened her motivations have been questioned.

At the last minute, and unilaterally, she removed a “pinch point” in the temporary redesign of Gloucester St, which was meant to slow traffic and increase pedestrian safety – overturning a decision by councillors.

Councillor Jake McLellan panned the decision as “undemocratic”, and claimed it was the result of pressure from a few influential developers who were unhappy with the trial.

Christchurch City Council held a closed-door briefing for councillors on the same day the Chief Ombudsman released a report about secret council workshops. Photo: David Williams

The council has struggled on many fronts, including high debt thanks, in part, to a $150 million cost blowout for the long-delayed inner-city stadium, Te Kaha, the poorly handled stink from the fire-damaged wastewater treatment plant, and an ongoing stench emanating from its compost facility, Living Earth.

Many are gearing up for a fight, as the council considers shedding all – or part of – city assets, including the port, airport, lines and broadband companies, which would break a promise made by the mayor.

To complete the council’s decline under Baxendale, the city’s residents are dissatisified.

The annual residents’ survey hit a 15-year low of 42 percent last year. This year it was steady at 43 percent, as ratepayers complained of many things, but especially poor roads, footpaths and stormwater drainage.

Despite a perception of poor service, rates keep rising.

To sum up, Christchurch council’s staff morale has been low, the council is mired in financial trouble (or in “shit creek” financially, as Mauger puts it), and it has been panned for secrecy.

Sounds a lot like what happened in Birmingham.

Baxendale’s resignation may seem like a salve for Christchurch’s councillors, because they can point to a source of many problems and suggest things will improve now she’s gone.

Beyond the appointment of a new chief executive, councillors have their own question to answer as Baxendale’s former employers.

Why did they continue backing the chief executive as valued and experienced staff walked out the door, and the community’s confidence in the council eroded?

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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1 Comment

  1. We are living in The Post Truth Era where denial has become main stream. Reflective of influence from the collective perhaps more than any few appointments? Perhaps Mr Williams needs to bring discussion of ‘who we are’ out into the front to enhance understanding of the situation.

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