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Thames-Coromandel Mayor Len Salt, his wife Svargo, and their dog, Molly, sit outside their new Thames property. Photo: KELLEY TANTAU

At home with Mayor Len Salt

When Len Salt arrives at the gate of his new Thames home, he has to stop the car to allow his dog, Molly, into the backseat. She rides with him the rest of the way.

When they reach the house, tucked at the end of a cul-de-sac, the Thames-Coromandel Mayor is greeted by his wife of 27 years, Svargo, and the dog runs out in search of a squeaking cow from her toy box.

The couple made the move from Whitianga to Thames on January 21, and while there is a flatpack in the study and outdoor furniture in the living room, there are also homely touches already scattered around the place, like the garden sculptures Len had specially made for his wife.

“The thing we love about it here is it’s safe, the neighbour’s kids play on the street, they come and say hello. The welcome has been incredibly friendly,” he says, “and I don’t think it’s because we’re the Mayor and Mayoress, they just reached out and brought beans and flowers.”

Len and Svargo moved to Whitianga in 2010, and it was in the coastal town that Len got his first taste of civic leadership. He ran for Mayor in 2019 and was ultimately successful in his bid at the last local body elections in October, 2022. Originally, the pair thought he’d be able to do “quite a lot” in his new role as Mayor from Whitianga. 

“Stage one of the plan was: stand for the mayoralty. If I won, then we would make decisions from there,” Len says, “but the reality is, I have meetings and stuff I’ve got to do in Thames all day, every day, and while there’s a lot of travel around the district, the number of meetings and commitments and engagements in Thames means that I’ve got to be here.”

However, with Svargo a former maths teacher at Mercury Bay Area School, and with Len playing the banjo in the Whitianga Dixieland Band, the couple see themselves still heavily connected to the eastern Coromandel. Their former home in Whitianga has been rented out.

“I need to travel a lot through the district,” Len says, “and I’m really keen for Svargo to travel with me because she’s a huge help to me in managing the stuff I’ve got to do as the Mayor.” 

“Even if I just chauffeur,” Svargo says, “then he can be on his emails and answer texts and have a sleep.” 

“The nature of this job is that I could not do this on my own, without the support I get from Svargo… she’s there helping me out, backing me up, and she’s also got her own life to live.” 

“I’m sure I’ll find it again sometime,” Svargo adds with a laugh. 

During his election campaign, Len made an early decision to vouch for South Eastern ward councillor Terry Walker as his deputy mayor. Audience members attending candidate meetings were, at that point, wary of a potential East Coast-West Coast divide. 

Len told the crowds he’d “make it very clear” that a council under his watch would work for the whole district, and nothing has changed now he’s living in Thames, he says.

“One of the things that needs to be really appreciated is that when you are Mayor, and when you are a councillor, you have responsibilities for the whole district, and that’s one of the challenges individual councillors are faced with. Their responsibility is not just for where they live, but it’s for the whole district.”

Len, whose whakapapa is both Ngapuhi and Tainui, is the eldest of five children. He learned to cook at age 10 and helped out his mum because “dad wasn’t around very much”. 

“I wrangled the other kids and tidied up, peeled the potatoes, put the soup on, because mum was working full-time so it was down to me,” he says. “You learn a lot from those sorts of experiences.”

He married Svargo on December 2, 1995, after meeting while dancing. 

“Svargo was the best dancer in the room and everybody wanted to dance with her,” he says. “She had the best timing and the best rhythm.” 

He’s only forgotten their wedding anniversary once – last year, in the months after being named the district’s new Mayor. 

And with the severe weather events impacting the region’s roading network and businesses, and with the Kōpū-Hikuai Rd out of action for the foreseeable future, Len and Svargo chuckle when asked about his first few months in the top job. 

“I’ve had other mayors ringing me up and saying: ‘Oh my God…’ They’ve been really supportive and are quite encouraging, saying that I’m doing a good job, and I find that really touching.

“Svargo’s also really good at insisting that I get a break. She’s really good at saying OK, enough, stop, put your feet up. She’s really good at keeping me sane and healthy and balanced, because the reality is, I’m not good at doing that myself.”