Race briefing: Waitaki District mayoralty, aka the Overlord of Oamaru

Over the course of the local elections period, The Spinoff will be publishing primers on some of the most interesting races around the country. Today, Alex Braae casts his eyes over the race for the Waitaki District mayoralty.

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The town of Oamaru dominates the Waitaki District, with slightly more than half the total population of the area. But the land covered by the District Council is vast, covering parts of both South Canterbury and North Otago. And plenty of the small settlements that dot the rural landscape are rather important, such as Palmerston which is a regional centre for mining, Moeraki which is a hub of tourism activity, and Kurow, which was the birthplace of Richie McCaw.

The district is broken up into four wards: Ahuriri to the north, Waihemo to the south, Oamaru on the coast and Corriedale in the middle.

What are some of the big issues for the Waitaki District Council?

Water: In the WDC’s pre-election report, many of the projects highlighted from the 2019-20 annual plan relate directly to water, in some shape or form. There’s the creation of a second treated water reservoir for Oamaru, improving the Lake Ohau village water supply so that it complies with national standards, and upgrading a wastewater treatment plant at Omarama to “address environmental risks.” On the first one, urgent restrictions had to be put on water use in Oamaru last year, because heavy rain made the Waitaki River filthy. In what is almost certainly not a coincidence, there’s heaps of farming along the Waitaki.

Tourism: The industry is growing solidly in the region (and not just because Oamaru has gone full steampunk) but with that, there have been tensions with locals. Tourism Waitaki, a Council-controlled organisation, was given a serve earlier in the year by Mayor Gary Kircher, who warned that it wasn’t doing enough to build a positive relationship with the people. In the past Waitaki has been part of calls for a tourism levy (now in place) which suggests difficulties around funding services for large numbers of tourists on a relatively small ratepayer base. There are also efforts underway to get Waitaki status as a “global geopark“, which it is hoped would put the area on the map for this particular niche in the market.

Oamaru Harbour: The harbour requires relatively regular dredging, in part because of the buildup of sediment flowing out from the Waitaki River. Without it, and this has happened a few times, boats trying to get into the harbour sometimes founder. One of the mayoral candidates, Katrina Hazelhurst, has gained local profile through her work with Friends of Oamaru Harbour, which aims to protect water quality and wildlife.

Roading infrastructure: This is a major challenge for the District, as the population density means they have a lot of roading to pay to maintain, without a lot of people to do the paying. An insight into the difficulties can be found in this Oamaru Mail interview with the incoming Waitaki District Council roading manager Mike Harrison.

An indoor stadium for Oamaru? The drums are beating, but Mayor Kircher said recently that other projects have had to take priority.

Retail wasteland: In what is something of a theme for smaller towns, many shops are struggling to keep their doors open, leaving CBD dead zones in their wake. Despite Oamaru experiencing pretty good times at the moment, there are serious risks of that, according to this editorial from the ODT.

Who’s running for mayor?

It’s a three horse race. Katrina Hazelhurst, previously mentioned for her Harbour work, has also been active in issues around Oamaru Hospital. She plans to run on a platform of housing affordabilty, and support for the vulnerable. Paul Mutch, a former farmer and Otago Field Days chairman, is running on support for business, and dissatisfaction in the rural areas outside of Oamaru. And the incumbent Gary Kircher is campaigning for a third term, after winning in an absolute landslide in 2016 – he won almost 7000 votes compared to his only challenger, who got 903. Kircher says he’s got plenty of experience, and there’s still a lot for him to achieve as mayor. The battle between him and Hazlehurst will be particularly interesting though. Kircher refused to sign the Local Government Leaders’ Climate Change Declaration earlier this year, and Hazlehurst is set up to make environmental issues a key part of her platform.

And who’s most likely to win?

Gary Kircher has got to be considered the favourite. He has plenty of experience and is highly active in local media, so will have strong name recognition. However, an entirely unscientific but interesting poll put up by local Oamaru radio station Real 104 found that Katrina Hazlehurst was preferred by 42% of respondents. Kircher had a narrow majority of support, and Mutch was way back. His voters are probably more likely to be from outside Oamaru, and again, to reiterate, the poll is not scientific. But either way the race shapes up as a fascinating contest between three genuinely credible candidates, each with unique selling points.

What is the voting method?

First past the post, so it’s possible a tactical element could emerge.

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