The mayoral hopefuls include an incumbent running for a third full term, an anti-vax teacher, a Congolese refugee and a repeat candidate with a criminal conviction for assaulting a child.
The sitting Palmerston North mayor is being challenged for the top spot by a former refugee with a political past, a fantasist with a criminal conviction and a former teacher affiliated with the anti-vaccine group Voices For Freedom in an election tinged with calls for transparency.
Why is Palmerston North the best place in the world?
The Te Reo Māori name for Palmy, Te Papa-i-Oea, says it all: “How beautiful it is.” If that’s not endorsement enough, there’s the word of my friend’s boyfriend’s cousin Laura, a Palmy local, who puts it like this: “Two hours to Welly, the mountain or 30 mins to the beach.”
What is the contest?
The Manawatū-Whanganui region, of which Palmy is part, is the third least competitive region this year in terms of the number of candidates to seats, according to Policy.nz’s health of local democracy report. The odds are good for candidates: more than half of them are set to be elected.
Voters have three elections to vote in – for mayor, for the city council, and for the Manawatū-Whanganui Horizons Regional Council. Unlike most other areas, the Palmerston North City Council isn’t broken up into different wards for geographic areas, with voters instead voting in a single general ward and a Māori ward.
The mayoral election is the most competitive of the lot, with four candidates competing for one spot. The election for the Te Hirawanui General Ward has 33 candidates, 21 of whom are newcomers, fighting it out for 13 seats. And there are five candidates running for four spots to represent the Palmerston North General Constituency on the Manawatū-Whanganui Horizons Regional Council.
Who is in the race?
The most prominent name running this year is incumbent mayor Grant Smith, who’s asking to lead the council for a third full term. First elected in a by-election in 2015, Smith went on to win by a landslide in 2016 and 2019 with 95% and 72% of votes respectively. Born and raised in Palmy, Smith cites climate action, the economy and the people as his top priorities on his official candidate profile, but says the economy is the city’s biggest issue.
Smith’s competitors may not have his name recognition, but each has his own interesting story.
Ross Barber is a long-time local elections candidate, running in every mayoral election since at least 2015 and finishing last every time. He also has multiple criminal convictions, including for assaulting a child. This time around, Barber has accused the current mayor of stealing and misappropriating council assets (an allegation which was denied and has not been substantiated), and has said that “denazification” should be a priority. His policies include making ratepayers the shareholders of city assets and implementing Sharia laws.
The third candidate is Hussein Kikhounga-N’got. The son of a Congolese politician, Kikhounga-N’got worked in various ministries and the presidential office in the Republic of the Congo before coming to Aotearoa as a refugee. His campaign is focused on housing, traffic and safety in the city.
And then there’s Glenn Mitchell, a newcomer who is the only mayoral candidate who does not reside in the council area. A former teacher, Mitchell’s campaign includes a rates freeze, community preparation for a recession, and opposition to the Three Waters reform. He has attracted criticism after Stuff reported that he was one of three Palmerston North candidates with ties to the anti-vax and anti-mandate group Voices for Freedom. The other two candidates, James Candish and Samuel Walmsley, who are running for council, have both denied VFF affiliation.
What is at stake?
As in many areas, the Three Waters reform is generating concern from some Palmerston North candidates, especially given residents’ consistently high levels of approval of Palmerston North’s water service.
However, the health of the Manawatū River is a major concern, with ongoing issues with wastewater being treated and discharged to the awa, according to the PNCC pre-election report. The council is set to move to a hybrid option where a percentage of wastewater will be discharged to the land instead. But with the new treatment technology at least five years away, multiple council candidates are promising efforts to restore the river’s health, according to candidate responses on Policy.nz.
Then there’s housing and rates. Palmy is set for a 5.8% overall rates rise for 2022/23, prompting many candidates to call for rates reforms. There are also the familiar calls for an increase in affordable housing due to a growing population, increasing house prices and long social provider housing lists.
And don’t forget the potholes. These are such an issue that the Palmerston North City Council received around 1800 pothole related complaints between June 2020 and June 2022. According to the pre-election report, this is down to a combination of the roads being built on soft clay foundations that don’t drain well and an increase in heavy freight through the city.
The race in a sentence?
Four candidates compete for the title of Mayor of Palmerston North and the opportunity to be the one to finally fix the city’s pothole problem.
The brass tacks
The Palmerston North City Council elections are voted under the single transferable vote system. Voting papers should be with you by now. If not, you can cast a special vote. The last day to enrol (for a special vote) is October 7. Your vote needs to be received by midday on Saturday October 8. Read more race briefings and other Spinoff coverage of the local elections here.