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An orange voting sign on an image of Mount Maunganui on a sunny day

The BulletinMay 22, 2024

Why Tauranga is going to the polls a year early

An orange voting sign on an image of Mount Maunganui on a sunny day

Barring an unplanned byelection, the July 20 council election will be our only major election of the year, explains Stewart Sowman-Lund in this extract from The Bulletin. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

The only (planned) election in NZ this year

You may have read over the weekend that Olympic rower Mahe Drysdale has thrown his hat in the ring to be the next mayor of Tauranga. Not long before, singer Ria Hall did the same. Why? Because Tauranga will have the chance to elect a new mayor and a new council later this year, 12 months before every other local council election. Barring an unplanned byelection, the July 20 election will be the only major election of the year. So today, we’re going to take a look at why it’s been five years since Tauranga residents last had the chance to vote in local elections, and why it’s going to be another four years before it holds council elections at the same time as everywhere else.

Let’s start at the beginning

In early December 2020, an edition of this very Bulletin by former editor Alex Braae was titled: “Tauranga council drama comes to a head”. It described how the then-local government minister Nanaia Mahuta had stepped in to address the dysfunctional council, effectively sacking the lot and replacing them with a commission. This Bay of Plenty Times report from back then has more detail, noting the former minister’s decision followed “significant governance problems among the council’s elected representatives and the findings of an independent review”. It also came after the resignation of mayor Tenby Powell the previous November, which itself followed reports of “in-fighting” among council members. Former National minister Anne Tolley was called in as commission chair. There was no election for Tauranga Council in 2022, meaning this year’s election will be the first time since 2019 that locals have had a chance to vote.

What’s happened since?

The lack of a Tauranga election in 2020 prompted a surge of candidates for the traditionally uncompetitive Bay of Plenty Regional Council (17 candidates for five spots). In February this year, an information evening was held ahead of the election, where the Bay of Plenty Times reported that potential candidates were warned to avoid “squabbles” and “bad behaviour”. Nominations opened at the end of April and have since trickled in slowly, SunLive reported, with 14 candidates on the ballot as of last Friday – four for mayor and 10 for the council. The commission that’s been in place since 2021 requested a hybrid model of councillors and commissioners after the election, reported RNZ, but local government minister Simeon Brown rejected this. Anne Tolley and her fellow commissioners told the government that there was “serious concern” that progress in the city could be undone “if the commitment needed to address Tauranga’s identified issues is not maintained”, warning of potential “dysfunctionality” as had been seen in 2020. Brown said this wasn’t necessary and the people of Tauranga wanted “a return to a fully elected and democratically accountable council”. Tolley discussed what she saw as the commission’s legacies in this interview with the Bay of Plenty Times’ Kiri Gillespie last month, pushing back at criticism the commission had prioritised individual projects.

Who else is in the race – and what they’ll be grappling with

With the rest of the country getting the chance to vote in local elections next year, the Tauranga Council elected in July will need to stay in place for an unprecedented four years (every local election will take place in 2028). The city is grappling with major issues, in part prompted by rapid growth over the last few years. House prices and rents have been on the rise, and there’s a shortage of social houses. Transport and traffic congestion has therefore become a bigger focus as well. So who could be leading the team and tackling these issues? In reporting Ria Hall’s mayoral bid, Stuff’s Glenn McConnell wrote of “Tauranga’s star studded return to democracy”. Hall told Newshub she was running because the city needed a “diverse perspective”. Mahe Drysdale told TVNZ’s Q+A over the weekend that the city needed a fresh start. Tenby Powell, the former mayor, is also considering another punt. There are also a couple of others, with lesser public profiles, contesting for the top job. Former deputy mayor Tina Salisbury is in the running, telling the Bay of Plenty Times she wanted Tauranga to move forward following the dysfunction of 2020. Local resident Chudleigh Haggett is also on the ballot. Nominations close on Friday.

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