Mayoral races in Auckland and Wellington may be front page news, but the most fascinating local elections are happening elsewhere
The 2022 local body elections are officially upon us and the races feel decisively spicier than they were in 2019.
There’s a wave of incumbent mayors stepping down, hot button local issues like housing and Three Waters, and the thinly-veiled seeding of Voices for Freedom-aligned candidates in races across the country.
Take Nelson’s list of mayoral hopefuls: boasting both the oldest and one of the youngest candidates in the country (at ages 84 and 22 respectively), as well as the city’s veteran former MP Nick Smith. There’s an open field in Queenstown where a lack of tourist dollars has been racking the city’s economy, and an all-wāhine mayoral race in the growing centre of Porirua.
The Detail reviews three different mayoral races you might not have seen in the headlines, but probably should have.
Our southernmost city has had a tumultuous few years, says RNZ‘s Tess Brunton.
A 2020 Department of Internal Affairs report into the Invercargill City Council revealed conflict and dysfunctional relationships between elected officials, stoked in part by a “leadership void” from mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt.
While the council has improved its performance since then, doubts remain about Shadbolt’s capabilities, with reports the 75-year-old mayor appears confused at council meetings and often struggles to follow agendas. He was recently a no-show at a mayoral debate, instead sending a written message saying the onus was on the other candidates needing to prove themselves to the voters.
Having served as mayor for eight consecutive terms, Shadbolt is standing again this year in a crowded field of 10 candidates.
“He has been saying that he wants to seek a final term as mayor to leave the city’s future stable,” says Brunton.
The next term is sure to be a big one: the newly-elected council will take on the management of $150 million in capital works currently on the books, including a major revamping of the central city’s streets.
Brunton says while Shadbolt has put Invercargill on the map during his tenure, the tide of public opinion may have finally turned against him.
“That favourable image has been a lot more tarnished, and there’s a lot of conversations about perhaps it’s time for some new blood and someone else at the helm.”
Contenders for the top job include current deputy mayor Nobby Clark and sitting councillor Darren Ludlow.
Former deputy mayor Toni Biddle is also running, having served under Shadbolt until her resignation in 2020 citing the strain of shouldering the mayor’s workload.
Radio broadcaster and sitting councillor Marcus Lush has been running a high-profile campaign for mayor, recently inviting Bluff voters to visit his home to talk issues.
Also standing are former New Zealand First list MP Ria Bond, 60-year old TikToker Tom Morton, and “energy shifter” Stevey Chernishov who attended the Parliament protest in March and has connections to misinformation group Counterspin.
Invercargill uses the first past the post (FPP) system, meaning voters will only vote for one candidate – and with so many alternative options to the incumbent Shadbolt, the vote may get split in his favour.
The former destination city’s emergency housing crisis is the biggest issue this election, says Local Democracy reporter at the Rotorua Daily Post Felix Desmarais.
“It’s the first thing that’s coming out of pretty much all the candidates’ mouths, and the voters’ mouths as well,” he says.
Rotorua has more than 50 of its motels under emergency accommodation contracts – many along the city’s main drag – with tenants reportedly contributing to an uptick in violent crime, public disorder and police presence in the area. A recent TVNZ Sunday investigation shone a light on the often poor living conditions inside the motels. Many local voices are calling for the emergency housing contracts to be suspended, but so far, the Government has refused to intervene.
“Whoever is the mayor will have to be really good at building those relationships with Government to advocate for Rotorua,” says Desmarais.
With incumbent Steve Chadwick not seeking a fourth term, the Rotorua mayoral race has become one of the most hotly-contested in the country.
Top picks for the role include Tania Tapsell, a sitting councillor and former National Party candidate for the East Coast electorate in 2020, and former New Zealand First deputy leader Fletcher Tabuteau. Candidate Ben Sandford unsuccessfully stood for Labour in Rotorua in 2020.
Rounding out the list of seven are sitting councillors Raj Kumar and Reynold McPherson, local businesswoman Rania Sears, and film makeup artist Kaladeevi Ananda who recently backtracked on her claim of winning an Emmy award.
Other local issues include the future of the iconic geothermal pools, the Blue Baths, and the zoning of reserve land for more housing development.
While Rotorua’s voter turnout dwindled at 46.4 percent in 2019, Desmarais recalls how a recent Rotorua Business Chamber mayoral debate was full to brimming.
“It was standing room only. The chairman of the chamber, Bryce Heard, said he’d never seen it that full before, and they’ve been running those events for years.
“So to me that indicates that – well, at least I hope – there’s going to be a bit of a lift in voter turnout in Rotorua in 2022.”
The race in Dunedin is between Green Party-backed incumbent Aaron Hawkins and a long list of Hawkins detractors.
Hawkins became the first Green mayor in the country in 2019, clinching the win off the back of Dunedin’s single transferable vote system. Stuff senior reporter Hamish McNeilly says Hawkins’ term has been characterised by efforts to make Dunedin more family-friendly – more playgrounds, cycle ways, and a redevelopment of the city’s main drag, George Street, into a destination precinct.
But these council programmes haven’t been popular with all, with many complaining about a loss of carparking and resisting changes to the city’s one-way roading system.
“Anything in Dunedin that tinkers with the same that we’ve had for decades attracts a lot of detractors,” McNeilly says.
One of the 11 candidates trying to unseat Hawkins is his old council foe Lee Vandervis, who hit headlines recently for taking the Dunedin City Council all the way to the Supreme Court over a $12 parking ticket. The council has spent more than $100,000 in legal fees over the dispute.
“I think that’s been quite damaging for him (Vandervis) and undermines some of the work that he does,” says McNeilly, who himself admits having a poor working relationship with Vandervis.
Vandervis is unvaccinated, and has made previous public statements about trying to source horse worming drug ivermectin as a treatment for Covid-19.
“I think that may have affected his brand. Where he may have appealed to some disenfranchised voters, I think that has possibly retracted somewhat.”
Other notable contenders include Team Dunedin ticket leader Jules Radich and his fellow sitting councillor Sophie Barker.
Despite low-lying south Dunedin being one of the most at-risk areas in Aotearoa when it comes to sea level rise, McNeilly says the issue doesn’t appear to be guiding voters this year.
“I think climate change is something we can feel will loom over us like a dark cloud and we just choose to ignore it – and we know about dark clouds in Dunedin,” he says.
“I think the one to watch will be the former Forbury Park racecourse. A massive plot of land, it was a flood-affected area in 2015.
“It’ll be interesting to see what happens there. Any other city, big plot of green space like that becomes available, they’ll put their McMansions on there. But Dunedin … that’s what to watch.”
Postal voting is open until October 8.
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