A former Buller civic leader and greengrocer notable for his fruity language wants to be back in charge of Westport to save it from future flooding

He may be an octogenarian but Westport’s Pat O’Dea is possibly New Zealand’s only mayoral candidate with a current warrant of physical fitness.

At 84, O’Dea is having another crack at the job he lost when Jamie Cleine took the Buller mayoralty in a landslide in 2019. He’s thought to be the oldest mayoral candidate standing in the local elections.

O’Dea put his name in the hat in frustration at the way his successors have managed – or in his view, failed to manage – the biggest threat to Westport’s survival: the Buller River.

“I thought if I’m going to have another go at this I’d better get a proper medical. So I went and had a full check-up and it came out fine,” he says.

Just to be on the safe side, he went back a bit later for a second medical.

“That was all clear too so I’m good to go,” he says.

His good health and trim physique may owe something to his occupation.

O’Dea is the owner of an iconic (on the Coast) old-time fruit and vege shop on Westport’s main drag.

He’s still there daily, working in the office, surrounded by shelves and crates of fresh and fragrant produce.

Hand-drawn signs proclaim its value for money, in some cases half what you might pay at a supermarket.

Other placards warn fiercely: “Don’t bloody squeeze the fruit!”

O’Dea’s been campaigning in the same plain language.

After the disastrous flood in July 2021 saw half the town evacuated and many left homeless, he took out a full-page ad in the local paper to air his views on why it happened.

“I was the chair of the harbour board for years and I know how it was designed and how it’s supposed to work.”

When the Holcim cement factory in the town was operating, the river mouth was constantly dredged to keep the channel clear so cement ships could come and go, O’Dea says.

“We always had cement ships here. When Holcim closed and the ships stopped, they stopped dredging. So it all started to build up with millions of tonnes of gravel from up the river – it just kept on building up and they did nothing.”

Dredging would have lowered the bed and the river’s flow would have kept a clear channel out to sea, he believes.

“But they didn’t do it. And Westport flooded. And Westport will flood again unless they do something.”

But not one councillor, including the mayor, came to talk to O’Dea about it, he says.

“The mayor even said in the paper that I and others were talking bullshit. So Westport flooded. They took no notice.”

Westport in the wet. Photograph: File

No stopping the Buller

Buller Mayor Jamie Cleine says dredging the channel wouldn’t have hurt but it’s no magic bullet. And it wouldn’t have prevented what happened to the town last year.

”We never had a flood that big come down the river in the years when Holcim was operating.”

If there had been a flood that size, the dredging done for shipping would not have saved the day, says Cleine.

“Pat has strong views on what we should be doing, and there are all sorts of theories. But his is not the view of anyone who’s been advising us, and that includes Niwa scientists who’ve had 20 years’ experience of the Buller.”

Having said that, Cleine says, the government is funding dredging to the tune of $5 million over the next two years to keep Westport harbour channels clear and remove gravel build-up.

He’s reasonably confident he’ll hang on to the mayoralty come Saturday.

“The voter turnout’s looking like it’ll be in the low 50 percent – not as high as last time,” the mayor says.

Buller electors yet to make their choice can deposit their votes in the ballot box at the Westport council office by midday Saturday.

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

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