“If I can survive this, I can probably do another three or four terms,” Invercargill mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt said in June, from the comfort of his large, open office.
The comment came mid-way through an impromptu two-hour interview with the man at the helm of New Zealand’s southernmost city.
There was the usual mixture of good humour and optimism, but he also acknowledged the golden years could be over.
Between the resignation of his deputy in late 2020, a communication breakdown with current deputy Nobby Clark, a damning independent review of the council which highlighted a leadership void, and the loss of his driver’s licence, pressure was mounting on Sir Tim.
But even in the face of intense adversity this year – with some councillors even calling for his resignation – Sir Tim was adamant he was still the best person for the job.
How would he know when his time was up? “When I lose and am defeated at the ballot box” was his simple answer.
As bad as things seemed in June, Sir Tim’s second half of 2021 was arguably more tumultuous.
On 18 June, the mayor revealed he was dealing with muscle tension dysphonia – a common voice disorder that occurs when muscles around the larynx become tight and prevent the voice box working efficiently.
A few days later, he asked councillors at a closed meeting what would happen if he were to step down.
Sir Tim waived the question off on a Facebook post as being something of a joke, but was upset at how coverage of the incident unfolded and he virtually disappeared for six weeks.
Then came August, and he was once again making national headlines for all the wrong reasons.
On 10 August, he responded to Local Democracy Reporting via email about his storing of personal items in council-owned buildings, taking the opportunity to label the council a “regime”.
The email, sent from Sir Tim’s work account, was intercepted and used against him by council chief executive Clare Hadley at a closed meeting an hour later.
Reprimanded for his actions, and drawing the ire of some of the councillors present, Sir Tim left convinced a vote of no confidence had been launched against him.
He then chaired an open council meeting with a TVNZ camera crew in-tow, capturing his every mis-step for a current affairs story: “Good morning,” he opened the late afternoon gathering.
Just one such day-from-hell might be enough to tip the scales for someone struggling in their field of work.
But add into the frame the public nature of the mayor’s struggles – for reasons of both his position and celebrity-like nature – and his tenacity presents itself as something of a marvel.
As the pressure mounts, so does Sir Tim’s resolve.
That week he took the opportunity to hit back, claiming he had been left “traumatised” by extended workplace bullying.
“These attacks are regular, behind closed doors and become more intense and prolonged with each week,” he said.
The mayor seemingly gained back ground the following week as it was revealed the email used against him had been intercepted.
This resulted in an apology from Hadley and a $10,000 independent review of the council’s electronic policies.
Then there were the moments which didn’t make headlines, moments where the mayor seemed to drift off into another world.
At a 30 June meeting, he gave a short speech about the Mt Erebus plane disaster which occurred on 28 November, 1979, with no connection to anything else that was being discussed at the meeting.
During a 27 July meeting, where the closure of Esk Street affecting surrounding businesses was discussed, he said there was “nothing more upsetting to the people of this city than laying pipes, then what feels like five minutes later, ripping them out again.”
The same day, he’d asked councillors to be seated for the opening prayer (councillors always stand for the prayer, and did on this occasion too).
Last month, a situation unfolded that symbolised the issue at hand: time seems to be catching up with Sir Tim, and the old way of doing things no longer flies.
Christmas cards cause controversy
In November, he once again found himself at odds with his own council, this time over Christmas cards.
In a tradition that dates back to the 1980s, Sir Tim had sent out a Christmas card on the ratepayer dollar, with normal recipients including members of Parliament, justices of the peace, council stakeholders and people who’d sent one to him.
When he emailed council chief executive Clare Hadley to organise his 2021 drop, the Christmas cheer didn’t last long.
Hadley responded asking for clarification about the meaning of “your” Christmas cards, and expressed concern the expenditure would not meet the auditor-general’s guidelines.
“I have seen some that have a photograph of you, and it would not be appropriate for the ratepayers to fund a card promoting an individual, rather than the city,” Hadley said.
The incident was the second blow of its kind for Sir Tim, who in September received a letter from Hadley giving a deadline for the removal of his personal possessions from council-owned buildings.
Items he’d been storing included furniture, a large appliance still in bubble wrap, a paper mache bust of his head, and a small metal dinghy.
The unique nature of his mayoral arrangements aren’t anything new.
Sir Tim’s long-time friend Sir Bob Harvey (former mayor of Waitakere City) wrote for Metro in September that when the two held office simultaneously, they ran very different operations.
Harvey recalled he was hands on, seven days a week, and envied Sir Tim who would travel New Zealand with Gary McCormick and Sam Hunt.
“I’d go backstage to see him whenever he turned up in West Auckland and we’d laugh about the old days, but he would tell me that he hadn’t been in Invercargill for almost a month,” he wrote.
And therein lies the rub. Sir Tim, the man who put Invercargill on the map, has been forced to adapt or sink, slowly, over time, and perhaps without warning.
The celebrity status is no longer sufficient flotation.
Perhaps it was a comment made to Harvey in the TVNZ expose that provided the most insight into his mentality.
When Harvey suggested it might be time for his friend to retire, Sir Tim had a simple answer: he has a tremendous aversion to quitting.
Those waiting for him to hang up the chains might be waiting a while yet.
Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers’ Association and NZ On Air.