'I don’t harbour any bitterness': Parry

One of the projects former Gore District Council chief executive Stephen Parry is proud of is the...
One of the projects former Gore District Council chief executive Stephen Parry is proud of is the town’s new library and redeveloped James Cumming Wing. PHOTO: SANDY EGGLESTON
Former Gore District Council chief executive Stephen Parry is returning to one of his first loves.

Mr Parry, who has been acting interim chief executive for the past six months, resigned last year after 22 years in the role but finished working at the council at the end of last week.

He planned on setting up his drum kit in a room in his house.

"They’re still sitting in cases from the last time I played and if they’re not set up I have no motivation to go and set them up.

"I need to have them set up so I can play them at my whim."

When he left school in 1980 he had no plans to work in management.

"At the time I was a long-haired, shark-tooth pierced, ear-wearing lout that had ambitions to play drums professionally, get in a band, make it big, be world famous and retire at 30."

He had "zero ambition to make it in any conventional management gig".

Sport and music had been the "big loves" of his high school years at St Patrick’s College Silverstream.

"I’m very much a rugby, racing and beer man."

His first job was as a property clerk for the New Zealand Post Office.

"I started at the Post Office not knowing what I wanted to do apart from just earn some money to drink beer and play in a band and have a good time.

"Should have gone to university but didn’t."

He married wife Wendy when he was about 20.

In 1986 the couple and their two young children moved to Invercargill where Mr Parry took up a land purchase officer position at the Ministry of Works.

"I needed to settle down and kind of get a focus on my career and advancing myself."

From there he worked as a Telecom property manager at a time when the company was cutting staff members.

"It was brutal. It was in the height of downsizing and economic reforms in New Zealand."

He had the opportunity to transfer to Nelson to carry on the same work for Telecom but declined.

"I thought ‘I just need to recapture my soul’.

"It was pretty dirty work."

Instead he applied for a Gore District Council management position in Mataura and stayed there for three years.

From there the family moved to Te Kūiti where Mr Parry took up a role at the Waitomo District Council.

"My wife and I then were very much like adventure bunnies thinking if there’s another job somewhere in another location, let’s just pack up sticks and go."

When the council restructured he took redundancy and got a job managing the work programme at Waikeria Prison.

Later he stood for Waitomo district mayor and was successful.

After a term in that role the family moved back to Gore in 2001 where Mr Parry took up the council’s chief executive position.

He spent the first three years reviewing council procedures and making changes.

"It was unpopular at the time but proved very effective in the long term."

He had a reputation for being a "hard ass".

"As chief executive if you want to be successful, you’ve got to make the hard calls and don’t shy away from that."

If someone was not performing, particularly if they were a manager, the issue had to be addressed.

"It has a very negative influence on the ability of the organisation to actually move ahead and perform and so I’ve done that — not out of any joy."

A leader who was not prepared to make the hard decisions was serving their "own comfort" and not the organisation.

People had made allegations of bullying in the council work culture, Mr Parry said.

However, often those were made by people who left council employment feeling hard done by.

Consultants had come into the council and noted how "easy-going, friendly and relaxed it is".

He was not the type of leader who insisted no-one use his carpark and did not stand on ceremony.

"I’m about making progress, having some fun and owning up to problems and see if we can sort them out and [make] a difference in this place."

He hoped to have earned the "begrudging respect" of his colleagues.

A lack of privacy, particularly with the development of social media, was a challenge that came with the job.

"You’re being slagged off, your every move is critiqued ... and there are forces out there that are looking for you to trip up and if you do they’re in there like a pack of dogs.

"They have a heightened sense of courage behind that keyboard.

"If they’re so full of wisdom [they should] have a crack [and] apply for council."

After the October 2022 election there was a breakdown in relationship between newly elected Mayor Ben Bell and Mr Parry, and there were calls for Mr Parry’s resignation.

"It’s been hard on me personally but I’ve come out the other side and I don’t harbour any bitterness.

"I’ve been surviving in the past 18 months.

"I haven’t been thriving and I want to thrive."

The chief executive’s role had become much more complex in the past 22 years, he said.

An example of this was the council’s long-term plan which was now a far bigger document than the first one in 2006.

"Today our long-term plan is written primarily for auditors and a handful of people that have a deep-seated interest in council affairs."

The influence of the auditors had increased greatly in the past 15 years which irked him.

In the early days of long-term plans the auditor checked the financial information was correct.

Now the auditors commented on subjects which included what matters the community should be consulted on.

"These are accountants.

"To me it is nonsensical ... What other sector would be audited to that degree?"

He was in favour of adding skill-based people to join elected councillors around the table.

"It would add a lot of lustre to the governance arm."

One economic highlight of his time had been working with the China Animal Husbandry Group to build the Mataura Valley Milk processing plant.

"When you advocate for these bigger projects in local government you often get absolutely castigated.

"Sometimes you’ve just got to be a bit bold."

He believed there were times the public should be consulted on council projects but other times elected councillors should be trusted to make decisions.

"We’ve got ourselves completely bogged down with feeling obligated to consult and consult.

"You do that and nothing gets done at pace."

One regret he had was not having more input early on in the project to build a cable-stay bridge across the Mataura River — it would enable people to cross the river and also carry water pipes.

"By the time I got involved there was some missteps taken in the process and we were on the back foot."

He often challenged people to find a town of fewer than 20,000 residents that had better facilities than Gore.

"I’ll back Gore any day of the week."