Please forgive this windy article. But really, choosing our local body officeholders is important … and deserves some discussion.

I love political candidates! Most of all, I respect their willingness to expose themselves to the brickbats of mere backseat drivers like BayBuzz.

Candidates can be provocative, exquisitely dull, angry, funny, humourless, shocking (think NZ Idol, first day of auditions), painfully nervous, eye-opening, boring, impressive, self-important, even inspiring.

I’ve seen all of these on display during the last few week’s worth of candidate meetings and personal interviews. And I’ll tell you about my personal favorites in a moment.

But first, it seems to me that some candidates do need protection from their fanciful ambitions. The rule should be: If you announce at the dinner table that you’re going to run for local office, and your spouse or partner blows their wine through their nose, then you probably just shouldn’t run.

Were that family litmus test applied, we might have had a half-dozen or so fewer candidates to worry about this year.

But what about those who pass the family sniff test? How should we assess them? Does anyone stand out?

Here are some thoughts.

1. Be tough on incumbents. They got us where we are today. It’s that simple.

If you’re happy about where we are, it’s easy … just vote for the status quo. Return the incumbents.

If you’re not happy, don’t vote for an incumbent unless you have a very strong reason to believe that specific individual did the best they could against the odds. Whatever you do, don’t be lazy … don’t just “settle” for any incumbent. Insist on proof of performance.

In the BayBuzz survey we’ve conducted over the past month, 66% of respondents said they were dissatisfied (15% very dissatisfied) with “the way current officeholders have been running local government in Hawke’s Bay.” Consistent with that dissatisfaction, only 17% of respondents indicated they were more likely to vote for incumbent officeholders (versus “fresh faces”) in this election.

Were I an incumbent, I’d be a bit more nervous than usual.

What’s fueling voter disgruntlement? Here’s more from the BayBuzz survey.

  • Fully 68% of respondents strongly support (another 29% somewhat support”making environmental protection a higher priority in the region.”
  • 48% strongly support (another 32% somewhat support)  “limiting rural sub-divisions in the region.”
  • 48% strongly agree (another 25% somewhat agree)  that  “Hawke’s Bay is in danger of losing the  ambiance that has made it so appealing.”
  • Only 31% agree that “the  Councils do a good job of listening to the  people,” while fully 81%  agree (46% strongly agree)  that “a relatively small group of insiders make most of the key decisions in HB.” And 79% agree (39% strongly agree) that “councils often have made up their minds before hearing submissions from the public.”

Not exactly a rousing vote of confidence in the status quo.

2. Challengers have to measure up. Serving well as a councillor is very demanding work.

For starters, I’d argue that simply forking over $200 is too easy a path to the
ballot. Any opportunist can do that. If they also had to deliver a
petition with 100 or 200 voters’ names in support, that would help separate
the wheat from the chaff at the outset.

Because “just showing up” is not good enough.

Watching and listening to the challengers in various candidate events, I got the distinct impression that some are clueless as to the actual work involved. Done right, the job is full-time … period. Otherwise, might as well just hand the keys to the Council staff.

Being effective as a councillor requires mastery of at least some issues (“jack of all trades” doesn’t work), plus the inclination and ability to persuade and negotiate … to bring others along. If you haven’t actually seen or met a candidate, it’s just about impossible to judge whether they have the interpersonal and communications skills to be effective. Bios in the Candidate Booklet can’t tell you much about that.

Finally, if there’s one type of candidate that bugs me, it’s the Businessman Savior: “I’m a successful businessman and therefore I’ll whip the council into shape and rescue your dollar.”

Don’t fall for that tripe! There’s nothing magically qualifying about being a businessperson. Remember Telecom’s Theresa Gattung? Anybody want to vote her onto council?! Many businesspeople have absolutely lousy people skills, but politics & governing subsist on people skills. They also have a notorious inability to place appropriate value on our natural assets, or to respond with empathy to people who are struggling in their lives. Just one Business Savior is sufficient on any council!

On behalf of the challengers, I’ll say that many have emphasized issues that resonate strongly with the people. Our BayBuzz survey asked: “… which issues are most important to you as you consider for whom you might vote?” Here are the results:

  • Environment issues  — Extremely Important = 74%, Important = 21%
    (e.g., Ocean Beach, clean rivers, sustainability)
  • Accountability issues — Ext Imp = 65%, Imp = 26%
    (e.g., respect for submissions, personal integrity, transparency)
  • Social issues — Ext Imp = 46%, Imp = 37%
    (e.g., crime, domestic violence, youth programs)
  • Fiscal issues — Ext Imp = 33%, Imp = 44%
    (e.g., rates, cost of services)
  • Economic growth — Ext Imp = 29%, Imp = 50%
    (e.g., business orientation, infrastructure improvement, CBD renewal)
  • Community issues — Ext Imp = 17%, Imp = 53%
    (e.g., parking, road repair)

The challengers have tended to talk about the issues at the top of this list; incumbents have tended to talk about the issues at the bottom. Hmmm!

3. Ticking the boxes

As a “pundit” I would rather you give more thought to the principles discussed above than to any preferences I indicate. But here are some reactions I’ve had to candidates that might help you make your own choices.

Mayoral

Arguably the mayoral outcomes are the most important in terms of setting future direction.

In Napier, Barbara Arnott, in my opinion, won re-election the day nominations closed. Only un-opposed Derek Brownrigg in HDC is a surer bet for keeping his seat! She’s forceful, has a vision, gets things done.  A former employer of mine, Ted Turner (a yachtsman of some repute), had a paperweight on his desk with the motto: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Somehow I can see that motto fitting Mayor Arnott. If voters in Napier are unhappy with her direction, where’s their credible candidate? It sure isn’t one-issue Cliff.

In Hastings, I admire each of the three candidates for different reasons. Lawrence Yule knows how to be a mayor … he can navigate the substantive and political intricacies of complex issues. He gives 100%+ to his job. You’d like to have him over for Sunday tea. I’d support him in a heartbeat as head booster of Hawke’s Bay Inc. (isn’t the CEO job open … again?). But as I see it, as Mayor he has gotten the balance wrong on growth vs. protecting our natural assets.  It seems like he’s never seen a mega-project he doesn’t like.

Simon Nixon, unfortunately, is running for the wrong office. He’s a marvelous critic — feisty, incisive and articulate — and would be a superb cage-rattler. The quintessential backbencher. But turning over rocks is different from providing leadership. I’d vote for him as a councillor.

Peter Nee Harland is a deep and original thinker. But he doesn’t come across as a leader, as a man energized by making daily decisions. Were I mayor, I’d put Peter in my personal “kitchen cabinet” … and turn to him when I needed a fresh and creative perspective … something totally out of the box or so totally basic that everyone else was overlooking it.

I have to vote for this office. Anybody got a good write-in candidate!

Councils

For the various council seats, I’ll stick with the candidates Making Waves has vetted and endorsed. That’s because I believe more accountable local government and getting the growth/environment balance right are the paramount issues. Making Waves (in which I participate), easily spent 100+ hours vetting candidates, including many in-person and phone interviews. Considering their advice beats the hell out of following the “ratings” given (to incumbents only) by Hawke’s Bay Today. You can learn about the Making Waves endorsements here.

I will mention a few other council candidates who caught my eye and ear, for better or worse.

  • Tim Gilbertson, for the Regional Council from CHB. Articulate, experienced, crafty.
  • Des Ratima, for the Regional Council from Hastings. I just like his sound, his common sense, and his recognition that smart environmental choices benefit people, not just resources and places.
  • Tim Tinker, for the Hastings Council from Mohaka. He’s endorsed by Making Waves, but he’s head-to-head against a fellow incumbent, so I want to note my own support. He’s hard-working, plain-speaking, committed to “nuts & bolts” improvements to Hastings District, and values the environment.
  • Keriana Poulain, for the Hastings Council from Flaxmere. Also endorsed by Making Waves. She has produced for her community and it deserves to be recognized.
  • And finally, one non-endorsement: Eileen “I don’t accept endorsements” Von Dadelszen, for HBRC from Hastings. She has proved to be pretty thin-skinned during this campaign, especially when challenged by environmentalists who see the HBRC as sitting on its collective thumb. If she can’t stand the heat, perhaps voters should help her out of the kitchen.

That leaves the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board. Pick 7 of 18 candidates. Might as well be a lottery. These poor folks didn’t even rate a candidates’ forum, yet they are dealing with issues of — dare I say it — life and death importance to each and every one of us. I have a long history in health advocacy and learned along the way to trust the nurses … so I’m voting for Helen Francis and Marilyn Mansfield.

That’s my two cents. Be sure to vote!

Tom   

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