Alex Walker: “I’ve only just begun!”
Three years ago Alex Walker put her hand up to lead a council that was rotting. A 12-year sewage problem, a building consent department that no one wanted to work with, a myriad of water issues, and a community that didn’t look too favourably on its local body.
“I felt that the leadership in the district was quite one-dimensional,” she says. “[That] the well-being of our communities across the board needed to be paid attention to in whole different ways and actually pulled together. It wasn’t just about one issue. It wasn’t just about a dam.”
“To be honest, there were challenges everywhere across the council business and across the funds that council were responsible for. And so, we have had to take quite a patient building block mentality [to] build the vision and build the business from the bottom up.”
Has she turned it around?
The most pressing issue Walker had to deal with was the Waipukurau wastewater treatment plant. Despite the millions of dollars spent on it, for years it has consistently failed to meet the consent requirements initially set by the Environment Court.
“I made a promise to this district that I would bring fresh eyes to everything. [I] asked the question and pushed and finally got the answer that our waste water treatment ponds were not operating and were never going to operate in the way they needed to,” she says.
Walker admits that as governors the CHB councillors did not act fast enough for the community. “We didn’t push and question and challenge enough to get the action as fast as we needed it. So, it was quite some months of disruption to that part of the community. We should’ve managed to find a way to act faster.”
So, Walker fronted up to the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council and admitted that the treatment plant was not working. “I’ll never forget sitting in front of the Regional Council, telling them about it,” she says.
However, it is one thing to admit that you have a problem – fixing it requires action. Following an independent review, Walker claims council is close to landing on a practical option for the district, facing an end-of-June court deadline.
Any solution to bring the plant up to code will likely end up costing the district as much as $40 million. However, several questions remain: Whatever the fix, can the district pay for it? How will costs be spread across the community – will the whole district be paying for it or just the urban users? Walker admits they will have to work on how to make this affordable for the community.
Another inherited problem was the district’s broken Building Consent Authority (BCA). For years allegations floated around about the toxicity of the authority, with the controversy reaching the point that former councillor Andy Watts campaigned to have the BCA reviewed. After much animosity between councillors and the authority, an independent audit was conducted into the BCA’s practices. However, Walker says that things have changed for the better, that the BCA is an “incredible success story”. Whether it is or not is for the public to decide.
A more current issue is the $250,000 suspensory loan that the council decided ‘in principle’ to give to CHB Water Holdings Ltd (CHBWH) so the $100,000 worth of consents and intellectual property from the defunct Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme could be more thoroughly investigated.
Questions have been raised around whether or not this project would serve the whole CHB community and not just a handful of farmers. Walker argues that water storage “has a role to play” in ensuring water security for the district and that it is Council’s responsibility to explore what value is left in the $20 million spent on the RWSS. “If Central Hawke’s Bay had to start that process all over again, we would really struggle.”
She says water security goes beyond the handful of farmers that need it to survive and that there were members of CHBWH that did not have land that needed to be irrigated. “[It’s] not about their direct benefit,” she says, adding that when the terms and conditions are drawn up for the loan, they will be strict – with Council directing what the money can be used for, and when/if the money needs to be paid back.
However, no decision had been made on the money at the time this article is written, as the matter was out to public consultation.
Big decisions for a small council and Walker is aware that relying on the land-based rating system to continue to pay for infrastructure is just not sustainable in the long term. “It’s the burden that sits on local government.” But she says one way to address this was to ensure that those who are sitting at the council table have the right skills to navigate the district through these times, and that the voters have the power to make this happen.
Walker says “I have only just begun” in terms of creating lasting change in CHB, looking forward to initiatives such as Thrive – a community wellbeing strategy.
She says one of the most important things for her is to help her community recognise that they have the power to change anything.
“I think I already knew this, but it’s been amplified, that everybody I come in contact with, when you strip it right back, has the same values and the same views on what success looks like for our community in Central Hawke’s Bay. We might disagree on how we get there, but actually when we strip it back, we’re the same. And the talent that resides in a small community is amazing.”
“I’m just excited about the future of Central Hawke’s Bay.”
And so she seeks a second term. A formidable candidate, not easily challenged.
Sandra Hazlehurst: Righting the Ship
Hastings has had a rough few years as well. The district’s council single-handedly put water supplies across New Zealand on alert after one of its bores caused more than 5,000 people to fall ill with campylobacter. This sparked a Royal Inquiry whose raft of recommendations affect all councils in New Zealand.
On top of this, Council gave consent for a track to be carved into the side of Te Mata Peak, a path that also carved a deep divide through the district. While all this was happening, its leader jumped ship to vie for a MP position.
All eyes then fell on his deputy Sandra Hazlehurst, who was voted in as the Hastings District Mayor mid-term – watching to see if she could right the battered Hastings Council.
“There is a significant change between the previous mayor Lawrence [Yule] and the vision the council has today,” says Hazlehurst. She says the council has had to rebuild and regroup, understand what is important to the people and then come together with a vision to deliver. “And there has been a lot of change and a lot of challenges, water being only one of them.”
But it was the big one, and one Hazlehurst had to solve fast. With the pipework from Hastings to Havelock North completed, time will tell if the $50 million set aside for new water infrastructure for the district will be enough. Then there is the Three Waters Review – drinking water, storm water and sewage – the council is undertaking that will feed into the national policy overhaul. It has been a long process, and while it is not finished yet, things are happening.
Next, Hazlehurst had to reunite her community after a council blunder – issuing a consent to carve a track up the back of Te Mata Peak without consulting with tangata whenua or the public.
Not only were key stakeholders not consulted before the track was cut, in an effort to fix the situation Council has spent around half a million dollars, and it hasn’t finished yet.
Hazlehurst defends her council, saying consents are dealt with by regulatory staff – that governance has nothing to do with this process.
“We made a mistake. It should have been a publicly notified resource consent, tangata whenua should have been consulted and then all our community could have had their voices heard. That was a part of the process that was missing.”
She says dividing the community is the last thing anyone wanted. But it has been and now Council is doing what should have happened from the beginning – holding a publicly notified resource consent process to remove the track, with the consent being put before an independent commissioner.
As soon as Hazlehurst worked through the Te Mata Peak debacle, a landslide at Cape Kidnappers saw two people hospitalised and the popular walk to the gannet colony closed to the public. Mindful of what happened with Te Mata Peak, Hazlehurst swung the other way and had more than 100 people in the council chambers for a four-hour meeting so the governors could hear everyone’s view on how Council should proceed.
“The biggest thing I have learned is to listen to our people and to make sure our councillors are informed and are a part of every decision-making process,” she says.
Another learning from both affairs for Hazlehurst was the importance of having the region’s tangata whenua involved in any discussion that affects the community as a whole.
For Hazlehurst this had to be more than just lip service, there had to be a culture change within her council. This has begun with staff having access to bi-weekly te reo lessons. A more sweeping change was introduced in March with councillors voting to appoint Māori representatives with voting rights to several standing committees. “We are very, very culturally aware now,” she says. “We’re bringing fundamental cultural change into the organisation.”
However some argue this is one more case of Council acting on an important issue without the public consultation Hazlehurst now touts.
Another partnership Hazlehurst has been working on involves Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta. She sees the Minister’s offer to pay local bodies to deliver more for their communities as a way forward to “ensure that we don’t take on too much as local government.”
She says this approach is already yielding tangible results. “Last year we got 125 young people into full time sustainable employment,” referring to a project that government funded, but Council led.
Hazlehurst seeks another three years in the top job because she hasn’t finished making the positive changes she knows she can for the district. “There are just incredible opportunities here and so taking those opportunities and expanding them to the wider district to make a better place is my motivation.”
What does a “better place’ mean? Hazlehurst wants to build 1,000 new homes for the district, combat climate change, protect the region’s soils and make the wellbeing of the people a top priority. “As a district we are enjoying strong economic growth, but we need to ensure everyone shares in our economic prosperity,” she says.
Will a contender or two emerge to challenge her record and aspirations? Stay tuned.
Kirsten Wise: Re-balancing the scales
Many in Napier assert that the voice of the people of Napier has been talked over, dismissed or otherwise ignored at the city’s council table in recent years. Not only do these constituents believe they are not getting any attention from the representatives they have voted in, they feel their views are ignored time and again by their council on issues that affect them.
Fairly or not, this is the widespread perception, and in politics, perceptions count.
“What I’m constantly hearing from people out in the community is that they don’t feel that they are being listened to. They feel that Council’s just got their plan and they hand down that plan come hell or high water, and they are not going to listen to what the community wants,” says councillor Kirsten Wise.
As mayor, Wise says this will be one of the first things that will change.
An early contender for the 2019 Napier mayoralty race, this loyal ‘born and bred’ Napierite has had an interest in politics since the age of three, when she proclaimed to her parents that she was “going be the first woman prime minister of New Zealand.”
As that honour went to Jenny Shipley, Wise instead turned her attention to local politics, winning a seat on the District Health Board in 2010. It was here fellow Board member and former Napier mayor Barbara Arnott asked if she would be interested in running for Napier City Council – and while national politics was in the back of her mind – local politics was in her heart.
“I just fell in love with it,” she said. “You do really feel like you’re in a position where you can make change.” But for Wise it is more than that – it is also about being able to connect directly with the local community. “About being the voice for people that can’t or don’t have the ability, or don’t have the confidence, to do it themselves.”
Six years as councillor means Wise is no novice when it comes to the issues that affect Napier. But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. She claims if she were to vote again on projects such as the velodrome, the outcome would have been very different, including a less drawn-out process.
In hindsight, would other things have turned out differently? Because in her six years, Wise has been a part of a council that has spent millions on feasibility studies for projects that never see the light of day. Part of a council that cannot get its water right for the people who drink it. Part of a council who thought a conference centre was more important than a war memorial. Part of a council that saw a disruptive loss of staff.
And now she is part of a council that, at the time of this writing, proposes to increase rates by a possible 6.4% to fund projects like a controversial new aquatic centre – an increase that could hit many of her fixed-income constituents hard.
Laundry list aside, Wise claims she has learnt from past mistakes, citing the War Memorial as an example of how she has changed. She regrets being on the wrong side initially on the War Memorial issue – but she is proud of the fact that she owned this mistake and then set about to rectify it. She says after two years, Napier can now move forward with a community-led project that all stakeholders are happy with.
The War Memorial issue underscored for Wise just how little the community’s point of view was taken into account by Council when making big decisions.
“We’ve done some fantastic things as a council. But I also think that we have had far too much of a focus on governance and not enough focus on democracy. And certainly, if I am successful with the mayoralty, that will change, there will be much more of a community-centric culture.”
For Wise, this would mean consultations that are not about ticking boxes, instead a more transparent process that truly engages the community and validates their input.
This may be cold comfort to people who do not want to lose the Onekawa pool – but Wise, along with five other councillors did their best to hold their ground. It was six for and six against the move to the new site on Prebensen Drive; Mayor Bill Dalton used his casting vote to settle the issue.
With a 51% to 49% split in submissions on the project, Wise says Council doesn’t have a mandate to build a “big flash pool” that will cost each ratepayer an extra $67 a year, plus an increased entrance fee. “A huge part of our community will not be able to afford to go there,” she says.
Wise wants to know why Council is committing $50 million to a new pool (she believes Onekawa could be upgraded to be fit for purpose) when that money could be spent on a new library (there is only $15 million set aside for this) and a new civic building (there is no money set aside for this).
Perhaps most importantly for Napier residents, the money could go towards fixing their water. Wise says there have been valid reasons for chlorinating the town’s drinking water supply, but she’s critical of how poorly these reasons were communicated to the public.
She notes that Council has identified $8 million worth of water projects they can pull forward into the next 12 months, but questions whether this is enough. “Let’s push out some non-essential projects because we have just got to get the basics right.”
Wise says the culture at Council must change, as does the current local model where CEOs are essentially in charge. “We’re constantly told as governors that ‘no, we’re not going to give you that information, that’s operational’.”
Wise says governors need enough information to be able to do their jobs effectively; it is this lack of information that leads NCC to make bad decisions. “In this current term there has been too much control in the hands of council staff.”
Wise says this is the one thing that could have been done better – recognition that it is the mayor and councillors who provide the direction to staff, who then take that direction and implement it. “I think that it’s been a little bit the other way around,” she says. “So that’s something, again, that definitely needs to be improved and changed.”
So if she is elected mayor – who will be running the council – Kirsten Wise or CEO Wayne Jack?
“Me. End of story. He may find that challenging, letting go of control,” she says. “For me it is very much a team approach … it will be the elected public servants who will be running our council.”
With an ‘open seat’ for the Napier mayoralty, no doubt one or two other candidates will vie to lead the team.