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Belonging at heart of communities

Rod Sheridan lives in Gisborne but works for Auckland Council, and still spends less time commuting than many colleagues. He speaks with Sophie Rishworth about the importance of bringing belonging to every community.

Rod Sheridan can get from his Gisborne home to his Auckland office in under two hours. He does the reverse trip on a Friday night, when he comes home for the weekend.

That’s a four-hour weekly commute — not bad for a 1000km return journey.

Rod has been the general manager of community facilities for Auckland Council for five years. During that time, he has never had his home base there. Instead, he and wife Shannon and their three children lived in Hawke’s Bay until they moved to Gisborne — which is home for Shannon — in February.

Rod has connections here too — he went to Gisborne Boys’ High School for a year, and has some relatives here.

Because it is his and Shannon’s choice not to live in Auckland, they cover the cost of his weekly commute and their Auckland apartment.

Rod loves the variety, size and scale of his job.

“You wouldn’t get that anywhere else.”

In his role, Rod looks after $18 billion of community assets — including more than 4000 parks, 2800 buildings, 2000km of coastline, commercial and residential properties, the Auckland marinas and 18 farms. He oversees all the capital builds and maintenance for Auckland Council and its CCOs (council-controlled organisations) along with a team of property lawyers who do the land acquisition and disposal.

Along with his day job he also chairs two external governance groups, one between the council and Vector around producing sustainable energy solutions for the city, and the other with Spark which is around using connectivity in the region to come up with innovations to predict asset use.

He feels strongly about bringing belonging back to communities, and finds you can do that from anywhere.

Daily, he oversees 700 staff and around 2500 contractors, who all share a common goal — to ensure every contract for the maintenance of Auckland, and every interaction with the public, has the underlying values of community and bringing people together.

It is about the social values each contract adds to the city, not how much it costs.

That might seem a bit “old school”, says Rod, but consulting with your community is something he believes in strongly.

“Local government is about local decision-making and local community. If you take community out of local government you don’t have anything.”

One thing he is proud to have worked on is that next year every cleaner, whether they work for Auckland Council or as a contractor, will be on the living wage of $22.10 an hour.

“It’s important what staff are paid for their contribution, and that it is equitable on everyone.”

Rod is currently working through the council’s long-term plan to increase the arboriculture and environmental budget to $22 million a year. That is the cost of looking after Auckland council’s trees, and it is the largest tree budget in New Zealand.

The environment and trees are also important to our communities, he says.

During his time at Auckland Council Rod has introduced integrated maintenance contracts. This means there are fewer contractors and they all have to adhere to delivering strong social outcomes, as well as delivering to the specifications of the contracts.

He knows it’s working because when Rod started, community satisfaction for maintenance across the region was 33 percent. It now sits at 94 percent, the highest among maintenance contracts across Australasia.

He believes it is important to set targets for how many apprentices are employed across the contracts.

“The contract values are over $200 million and we need to ensure we are doing our bit to ensure we have a qualified workforce as our legacy.

“The contracts also have strong Maori and Pacifika outcomes, how many employees there are, and creating value for their communities.”

Contracts cannot be decided on price alone, he says.

“Anyone can beat you on price. Then you get into a situation where people undercut each other to get the work, then they undercut the service, and it becomes a race to the bottom. More important is the value added to the community from the service, rather than how much it cost.

“We want to add value and have community outcomes as part of every contract.”

Rod comes from a contracting background so understands the process from both sides.

He left school in Hawke’s Bay at 16 and went shepherding, then worked his way up into business management.

He credits his wife of 22 years for her support, and being able to pick up the kids and move to new cities for better opportunities for their family.

They moved to Australia when their youngest was three weeks old, then moved from one side of Australia to the other when their second-born was a month old.

They have lived in Adelaide, Perth, Queensland, the Gold Coast, then moved back to New Zealand, before going back again to Australia, to manage coal mining towns in the Bowen Basin.

When the kids were about to start high school they returned to Hawke’s Bay. Rod worked for Hastings District Council and Shannon started her real estate career.

The kids are all grown up now. Their daughter Pryde is 21, and their sons Jack and Max are 19 and 17.

Shannon works with her mum Bronwyn Kay at her real estate agency at the inner harbour.

It is a bit of a relief, says Rod, when he hops on that plane every Friday night to come home. He can sign off mentally.

Auckland Council has a governance structure of 156 elected members, a governing body and 21 local boards who all have delegated authority over community assets. Rod writes 22 reports a month.

A day in his life could start with a meeting on farming, then go to commercial leases, maybe there’s a land purchase to finalise and right now there could also be meetings around the America’s Cup, or signing off on a new swimming pool, or libraries.

Rod is impressed with NZTA and Kainga Ora and how they are bringing the decisions back to the regions. He believe councils need to enable that as well.

“When you are a monopoly like Auckland Council and people have no other choice, staff need to understand that it is not a right to work there, it is a privilege, and we need to do things to support our customers.

“If we get that stuff right it is a real step forward.

“Understand the customer and how to help them. Instead of saying ‘no’ — ‘what else can we do, what is another solution?’

“We have to be solution-focused.”

Rod believes Gisborne is still untapped.

“We are very lucky with the diversity of what we produce. We need to build on that and look for other industries to come here.

“We’ve got to be more forward-thinking. We are a unitary authority with a big land mass and a small population. The people in Gisborne will have many ideas on how to improve the region.”

Rod is passionate about looking after the coastal environment better.

“When I drive around Gisborne and look at maintenance I see lots of opportunity for proactive maintenance. I do see rubbish in gutters, that ends up in the harbour, and then we spend money cleaning the harbour.”

It’s cause and effect, he says, with common sense.

And, yes, he does have aspirations for local council.

Rod and Shannon Sheridan