When Donna Favel was a young girl, she’d pause on her walk to school and wait underneath Ashburton’s famed clock tower for her sweetheart, David, so they could walk the rest of the way together.
Eventually, the couple married right next to it. And 17 years later, the tower that stands in the heart of Ashburton and holds a special place in Donna’s heart, is now at the epicentre of her world – as she’s just become her beloved town’s first-ever female mayor!
“It’s funny – the centrepiece of our town is also the centrepiece of our marriage and relationship!” laughs Mayor Favel (52), a former two-time councillor, who has just taken up the mantle of mayoralty.
But that’s not the only role Donna holds in the Canterbury town – she and David (50) also run the local cinema.
While it might seem that the two jobs might be less than complementary, Donna says she’s learning how to juggle them both pretty quickly.
“There’s definitely a lot of that in my life,” she grins. “I’m still working on finding that balance, but we’re getting there.”
Having been a councillor for two terms, and after a lot of soul-searching, Donna decided to put her hand up for the all-encompassing role.
“Most people’s first idea or experience with local government is they take your rates, take care of the roads and parks, and keep libraries open.
“But we realised when we were building the cinema that it’s much more than that. They do resource consents and building inspections, then when you’re in a newly redesigned setting, they change the road layout and do the gardens.
“So I became more aware of what council did,” she explains.
But it was during this process that Donna thought there seemed to be inconsistencies in the way different groups were treated. That was a catalyst for Donna getting involved.
“I really like fairness, so one word I’ve learned since being on the council, if it is a word, is ‘fairety’, which is a combination of fairness and equity – everyone is kind of treated the same.”
Her family supported her all the way, she says, knowing how hard she had thought about the step. Two terms later, she’s now in the mayor’s seat, albeit “with training-wheels on”, she laughs.
“I was so flattered and honoured to have this role. Last term, I was the only female on a council of 13, and this time round we have five, which is wonderful as well!”
It’s the support of her husband David, who runs the cinema, that she speaks especially highly of. The pair were high-school sweethearts at Ashburton College, however as young adults, they went their separate ways when Donna decided to travel the world.
But upon returning to New Zealand, the pair rekindled their romance and as Donna says, “the rest is history”. As well as running a business together, Donna is stepmum to David’s two adult children from a previous marriage.
There is no average day for Donna this early in the game, with the new mayor saying she and David have to schedule time to see each other while she’s learning the ropes.
“At the moment, I’m immersing myself in council where I’m hoping to start the day at 7.30am, after my local aquacise class, and then finish at 2pm. But my husband has stipulated I must give myself some weekends off, as we haven’t had one in a long time!”
Her experience running a movie theatre for more than a decade, as well as attending “mayor school” after being voted in, has been a huge help.
“One thing the cinema prepared me with is that we do not survive in our industry if we don’t listen to people and if we do not react quickly to what they are saying.
“Mayor school was really invaluable. I was able to meet and learn from new mayors and existing mayors, and learn what kind of leader you want to be,” she says.
She is definitely learning fast, though, she admits.
“Some days, you please everyone, other days you please no-one,” she sighs.
“My hope is that I can be an inclusive mayor, to take the whole team with me.
“I’ve always said sport prepared me for council. It’s about making sure you practise, making sure you know the rules, know your team-mates and how you can work with each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Her deep love for Ashburton also rings true as she declares one of her first orders of the job. “I love this place. And one of the first things I’m making sure we do is find a way to celebrate all of the successes we have here.”
Words: Ciara Pratt
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