Sun, Oct 9, 2022 6:00 AM

Departing mayor says it was ‘an incredible privilege’


Tessa Jaine

John Leggett will leave Marlborough’s top job this month as the region elects a new mayor. The two-term councillor and two-term mayor tells Judene Edgar he’s proud of what the council has achieved.

‘Bloody nice bloke’, ‘professional’, ‘an excellent mayor’, ‘congenial’, ‘incredibly passionate’, ‘caring and determined’ … the accolades flow for two-term mayor John Leggett who is retiring at the end of this term of council.

And while he might be stepping away from the mayoralty, John says that his interest in local government and dedication to Marlborough hasn’t dimmed at all. After 12 years on council, six as a councillor followed by six as mayor, he’s as enthusiastic as ever about the future of Marlborough, and he’s looking forward to being able to spend time enjoying some of the local facilities. “I’ve been a member of Marlborough Tennis Club since 1968. I’ve paid my subs each year, but other than going to the AGM, I haven’t set foot on a court for the past three years,” he says.

Mayor John Leggett volunteered to be a casualty as part of Marlborough’s Emergency Response Team training at the Blenheim fire station.

And with all three of his children living in the northern hemisphere, he’s also looking forward to some much-overdue travel. But rest assured, he has no plans of leaving Marlborough – he’s a Malburian through and through.

Despite planning for a more relaxed future, John still has both feet firmly under his desk as he continues to deal with the aftermath of the August 2022 storm events. In fact, his mayoralty is bookended by civil defence emergencies. John was sworn in as mayor on 26 October 2016, and less than three weeks later on 14 November 2016 was the devastating 7.8 magnitude Kaikoura earthquake. His first thought was, “what do we do now?”, but upon turning up to the Emergency Operations Centre, he was quickly relieved to see a team of highly-trained skilled professionals running an outstanding civil defence operation. He quickly found his feet using his community connections to support and uplift people, and established a community fund to help people and families in need, particularly those in Ward.

Council reserves officer Rob Dunn and John Leggett at the opening of the Grigg Drive to Rotary Lookout track.

July 2021 Marlborough was hit by, what was then, its largest-ever recorded flood, cutting off homes, hundreds of people were evacuated, and people were rescued from swollen rivers. Unfortunately, the damage caused in the 2021 state of emergency has since been eclipsed by the August 2022 ‘atmospheric river’ that created widespread flooding and devastating slips, and cut off access to Nelson and properties in the Marlborough Sounds. Once again John is rolling up his sleeves to get the job done, but he wears his heart on his sleeve. “When you see some of the damage and impacts on people, their homes and livelihoods, it’s heartbreaking.”

John has a genuine love for his home town and the people, and he says that joining council was his way to give back to the town that had given him so much. He attended Bohally Intermediate and Marlborough Boys College before leaving to study law at Canterbury University. However, it was thanks to a holiday job at Blenheim Borough Council emptying heavy metal rubbish bins that helped him through university (and he says that he has never been fitter!). After graduating from university in 1977, John spent a number of years overseas and throughout New Zealand working in corporate and finance law before returning to Blenheim in the late 1980s to be near his parents and join Wisheart Macnab & Partners as staff solicitor (and despite his busy duties as mayor, he still remains active within the firm).

Keen for new challenges and with “something to offer”, he stood for council in 2010, and was one of six newly elected members. “I thought I had a reasonably good understanding of council until I got in,” he laughs. “It’s a massive role and there are so many areas where people don’t realise the involvement of council, like river control and emergency management.”

A new playground at Whitney Street School in Blenheim called for an opening by the mayor.

A second term on council as chair of Community and Finance helped him to strengthen his connections with the community and businesses and deepen his knowledge of council. He also attended committees that he wasn’t a member of to ensure he was across all areas of council. Such is his commitment, over the past 12 years, John estimates that he hasn’t missed more than 10 meetings.

With Alastair Sowman stepping down in 2016 after four terms as mayor, and with the backing of his partner Anne Best, John decided to stand for mayor. He won a landslide victory campaigning on strong balanced leadership and a united council. One of his key promises was “leading an engaged and effective council team” – and looking back, John considers that he has delivered this. “We have a very cohesive team of councillors and a strong management team. If you get good information, you have good debate, and you make good decisions. And the community are more likely to understand why you made a decision, even if they disagree with it.”

Those who have worked with John feel that he has delivered on his campaign promise of a positive council culture, and can be proud of his contribution to the region. Marlborough Chamber of Commerce general manager Peter Coldwell says that their relationship with the council has got stronger thanks to John’s support. “He’s an excellent mayor that’s made a real difference for the region. He’s really well informed on every topic and a well-considered, collaborative guy to work with.”

Marcus Pickens, general manager of Wine Marlborough agrees. “Under John’s stewardship, our relationship with the council is stronger than ever. He was always so professional and always has a warm smile no matter what the topic of discussion is.”

His colleagues around the council table are also going to miss him. Councillors spoken to acknowledged his professionalism, determination, and commitment to the community and applauded his dedication to community service including former mayor, councillor Gerald Hope, who recognised his outstanding leadership during the Kaikoura earthquakes, two major storm events, and multiple lockdowns.

“John sets the tone and people respect him. He has led a cohesive and productive team that has pulled together and pulled their weight.”

The Koru Native Wildlife Centre, run by husband and wife team Brian and Ellen Plaisier, was opened by John Leggett in 2021.

Deputy Mayor Nadine Taylor says that “John has exemplified leadership and he’s done that with such wisdom and dignity. He has the absolute trust of the community because he is so open, and fair and balanced in the way he approaches issues and people. I don’t think that we could have hoped for a better mayor over the last six years to see us through the civil defence emergencies and upheaval we’ve experienced. He has been such a measured guiding hand for council and the community.”

John has nominated Nadine for mayor and is confident that the region will remain in safe hands with her at the helm. “She’ll be an outstanding mayor,” he enthuses.

Typical of his mayoralty, John is reticent to blow his own trumpet, but nonetheless, it is only right that he gets the last word.

“Marlborough has treated me really well and I’ve really enjoyed being mayor. It’s been an incredible privilege and I’ve worked with great people. I’m really proud of our Long-Term Plan with its emphasis on infrastructure, and the way we provide parks and reserves. I’m looking forward to the new library opening later this year – it’s a magnificent site that will change the CBD. I also want to thank Anne for her contribution and for her incredible support of my mayoralty.”

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