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Otago Regional Councils spans Central Otago, Clutha, Dunedin, Queenstown Lakes and Waitaki. Image: Tina Tiller
Otago Regional Councils spans Central Otago, Clutha, Dunedin, Queenstown Lakes and Waitaki. Image: Tina Tiller

Local Elections 2022September 29, 2022

Race briefing: Otago Regional Council contest swims in toxicity

Otago Regional Councils spans Central Otago, Clutha, Dunedin, Queenstown Lakes and Waitaki. Image: Tina Tiller
Otago Regional Councils spans Central Otago, Clutha, Dunedin, Queenstown Lakes and Waitaki. Image: Tina Tiller

Otago Regional Council teetered on the edge of being disbanded last term. Over-allocated freshwater resources and a culture of distrust between councillors and staff is a big concern. Which of the candidates – including a sentient toxic algal bloom – might be the answer to this council’s toxic work environment?

Otago Regional Council (ORC) has faced both internal and central government investigations over the last three years with councillors accusing staff of a lack of transparency and employees accusing councillors of trying to “trip staff up”. The chief executive recently resigned and more staff resignations may be on the way. If that doesn’t sound toxic enough, a literal slime monster is running for office and is hoping to add some algae bloom to the mix. 

Why is Otago the best place in the world? 

Otago is famed for its Hollywood-worthy scenery and world-class pinot. Its landscapes have featured in Lord of the Rings and, more recently, Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning Power of the Dog.

What is the contest?

While Otago’s vast, dry terrain makes for a great western backdrop, it presents a daunting task for councillors trying to allocate finite freshwater resources to parched farms and thirsty vineyards while maintaining the ecology of their rivers and streams. To further complicate matters, ORC has had to process a glut of gold-mining era water permits. 

The collective experience of central government veterans Michael Laws, Marian Hobbs and Hilary Calvert in the last cohort struggled to advance ORC’s cause. The council is divided into four constituencies with the toughest contest for the Dunedin constituency which has 15 candidates vying for six spots. Councillor Kevin Malcolm for the Moeraki constituency is the only candidate to be elected unopposed.

Only around 230,000 people live in Otago and nearly half of those are in Dunedin, including a significant student population. 

Who is in the race? 

Students and young people in general are traditionally less likely to vote. However, Elliot Weir, features editor at Otago University’s student magazine Critic Te Ārohi, is hoping to change that. He opted to run for regional council after reporting on ORC’s dramas over water allocation earlier this year.

Conflict between councillors and staff looks to be a key motivator for him and a number of this year’s candidates according to their profiles on

Early childhood educator Alan Somerville lists establishing trust between councillors and staff as his top priority. Likewise, Tony Lepper, wants to restore confidence in the council. “It is hard to tell if the current elected members are part of the problem or the solution but something needs to change”, he says.

In the Dunstan constituency, Mike Barker, says he is standing because he is frustrated by “internal squabbles”. He adds that he has: “been disappointed by the degrading of Central Otago lakes and rivers and the seeming inability of the Otago Regional Council to manage this.”

Of the three former central government MPs in last term’s council, only Michael Laws (who once called the ORC a “slothful beast”) is standing for re-election. The former Whanganui mayor and MP has never shied away from controversy. He recently returned to talkback radio, joining controversial online station The Platform. As Whanganui mayor he stridently opposed the inclusion of the letter H in the city’s name. 

Alexa Forbes, who is standing for re-election in the Dunstan constituency, lists her number one priority as compliance with Te Mana o Te Wai – the central concept of the national water policy which prioritises health and wellbeing of water above all else. But Laws disagrees, contending that Te Mana o te Wai does not provide balance: “Science not ideology,” he says on

And, of course, there is Slime the Nitrate Monster – real name Jenn (Slime) Shulzitski. “​​I – Slime the Nitrate Monster – am a simple multi-celled organism, with no heart or soul, making me a perfect Otago Regional Council candidate”, she said on her profile.

The Slime Monster and Michael Laws. (Not to scale. Or are they?)

What is at stake?

Water allocation

Developing a new Land and Water Plan is a big priority for ORC next term. Their failure to develop a water plan last term – including minimum flows from its over-allocated water catchments – was a source of investigations and council-staff tension last term. The environment minister ordered an investigation in 2019 as the expiry date  for unrestricted gold-mining era water permits loomed and applications for their replacements flooded in. The ORC managed to avoid being disbanded, but matters were far from resolved.

One of the catchments in question, Manuherekia, is home to an endangered native galaxiid, a whitebait-like fish whose non-migratory nature means it is more likely to be killed by changes to its environment than cooked up in a fritter.

Marian Hobbs quit last year after councillors failed to agree on minimum flows for Manuherekia. Councillors, including Laws, dismissed information provided by council officers and requested more scientific information. A subsequent report described the actions as a “delaying tactic”, and noted examples of councillors trying to “trip staff up”.

Communication and culture

Discord between councillors and staff was highlighted again after an investigation into the dumping of contaminated building material in the Clutha River. Amid accusations that council engineers had permitted the dumping of material to prevent erosion of the riverbank and resulting concerns about conflicts and invalidating insurance, the material was not removed for more than 90 days. 

Councillors were not told about the incident and were not happy about it, commissioning an investigation by former High Court Judge Sir Graham Panckhurst. The resulting report described communication failures and a divide between staff and councillors as “in another league”.

The chief executive recently resigned and it is feared that staff might follow suit if relationships between councillors and staff aren’t repaired.

The race in a sentence

Toxicity is an issue dealt with by many regional councils, but for the ORC a toxic work environment seems to be causing more trouble than toxic rivers – unless, of course, Slime Monster gets her way in which case they will need to deal with both.

The brass tacks

The Otago Regional Council election is voted under the first past the post. Ballots should be with voters now. 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

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