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  • Rex Widerstrom

Hutt residents face a tough choice

There are five candidates for the Hutt mayoralty this year. Together with deciding which one of these to elect, voters for the first time are being courted by candidates for "at large" seats. That means letterboxes clogged with pamphlets from a bewildering array of people. Then there's ward council positions, DHBs, the Hutt Mana Charitable Trust, the Regional Council...

I have to confess I've barely started to look at council and other candidates yet, mostly because I've spent a month or so closely researching the five candidates for mayor so I could moderate a live broadcast debate last night on Hutt Radio. I've looked not just at their public statements and policies, but also at the reactions of voters - at least those engaged enough to discuss politics online - to them and to what they have to say.

Inevitable after a debate, people want to know who "won" - even some of the candidates themselves. But how do you measure that? Who had most crowd support? That can depend on how many partisan supporters of each are in the crowd. Who answered the questions most smoothly; who was in command of their material? A slightly better measure, but a measure that favours incumbent politicians who are used to making speeches and have a vast amount of information available in their current roles. Who I "feel" won, as someone who works in media and has worked in politics and stood for public office? Totally subjective. And does "winning" a debate mean you'll make a good Mayor, anyway? Not necessarily.

So rather than pick a winner, here's my feelings about all five candidates. In most races, especially for central government, there's always at least one person in each batch I fervently hope won't win. Not so here. In fact I wish there were some ghastly experiment whereby we could combine the very best of all five, each of whom has something to offer.

James Anderson, candidate for mayor

James Anderson seems ambivalent about whether or not he wants the role. An odd, and oddly refreshing, attribute in a politician. He debated whether or not to debate, and decided to do so only at the last minute. Another candidate told me he's not always at meet the candidates meetings, although James is the only mayoral candidate who also has a full time salaried job to do at the same time.

He's clearly thoughtful, though he revealed gaps in the information on which he bases those thoughts, such as claiming there'd be "about two" homeless people in Lower Hutt - a statement for which he was rightly ridiculed by an active an opinionated audience.

But that gaffe aside, James espouses the kind of common sense solutions that would appeal to many voters. His answer to the upcoming cost blow-out in repairing or replacing earthquake-prone buildings is to first look at every dollar Council is spending on services, before raising rates or borrowing. I wondered whether that was the kind of hollow sloganeering in which politicians excel, but he was able to point to a number of services such as street sweeping, drain clearing and rubbish collection from which he didn't believe Hutt residents were getting value for money. That certainly met with agreement from most of the crowd.

I spoke at some length with him after the debate, and advised him to stand for Council (this is his second tilt at the Mayoralty), which would provide him a decent salary (over $58,000 pa) and the luxury of having the time, and access to resources, to be able to formulate a comprehensive policy platform and get used to the way Council operates. If there was a word to sum up James it'd be "potential". With more time to study his subject, some experience of governance and more electioneering under his belt he could easily take the mayoralty after the next Mayor serves a term or two. But probably not this time.

Campbell Barry, candidate for mayor

Sitting councillor Campbell Barry is impressing a lot of people, and it's easy to see why. He's personable, and a very polished performer on the hustings - though when people are tiring of professional politicians and seeking authenticity, that can be a negative for some. Which is not to say Campbell's inauthentic. Beneath the ambition lies a sharp mind and heart that's definitely in the Hutt. And his two terms on Council mean only he and sitting Mayor Ray Wallace have an unassailable grasp of all the issues.

It also means he's been sitting round the table when some unpopular decisions were made. While he pointed out he'd voted against some, he also admitted he'd been wrong about others, and apologised. That's rare in a politician, but was met by jeers from some in the crowd. We need politicians prepared to admit their errors, and I'd have hoped even the most partisan of those opposed would give grudging credit for that admission. But it's perhaps indicative of just how polarising the race is - at least between Campbell and Ray Wallace - that they did not.

As would be expected from someone with Labour Party backing - and thus resources - Campbell has a thorough and thoughtful plan for the Hutt if he becomes Mayor. It involves a pledge to listen to ratepayers on a raft of issues. It's up to voters to judge whether he will meet that commitment and whether, if ratepayers tell him what he doesn't want to hear, he'll follow his own inclinations or theirs. But he shows every indication at this stage of being genuine in that commitment.

More than any of the other candidates, Campbell exudes energy. It's clear he wants this job, and would make every effort to implement the plans he talks about. Of course a Mayor is but one vote around a Council table and, like his main rival, he has supporters and detractors among sitting and would-be councillors. The biggest test he'd face, in my view, would be in uniting the council behind him after a fractious campaign, particularly given that to win, he needs to unseat a long-serving Mayor to whom many current councillors - and more than a few candidates - are very loyal.

George Mackay, candidate for mayor

George Mackay seemed not to have a cohesive plan of what he wanted to do as Mayor, but what he lacks in policy he makes up for in personality. Of all the candidates, he was the "everyman", and the audience seemed to recognise and warm to this. Asked for specifics, he often offered agreement with a solution already proposed by another candidate. Not that there's anything wrong with that - no one has a monopoly on good ideas and rejecting those of others just because they're your political opponents is shortsighted at best.

But if you're going to throw your hat into the ring to be mayor, people want to see a reason that goes beyond "I can do a better job than the current guy". He also answered some questions with a question - "do we want more roads and more cars, or to spend less on roads and more on public transport?" When you're standing for mayor, people want to hear your answer to that question or, better yet, a promise to consult them on it.

Earnest and hard working (he runs a business alongside his campaigning, and was almost late to the debate because he was still putting up signs in Avalon 25 minutes before it began) he impresses as the most down-to-earth and least "political" of any of the candidates, and that's something people are looking for. But as mayor he'd face a council table filled with some of the most political people I've ever encountered in 30+ years of observing, writing about and participating in politics. And they'd swallow him whole.

He's just the kind of person needed on a community board and then, when he's learned politics, around the council table. If he can survive that without losing his honesty and authenticity then he'd make an absolutely amazing mayor. But that's in nine or 12 years at best - something that's entirely possible for a 29 year old, who'd still only be in his early 40s when he took office.

David Smith, candidate for mayor

"Fascinating" and "delightful" aren't words I'd usually reach for when writing a political sketch, but even they fail to summarise David Smith. I've rarely met someone with so many ideas about so many things, some eclectic, some brilliant, all of them worth considering. He's been widely reported for his "flying cars" comment, but that's out of context. His point was that eventually we'll have them - even if we're behind the schedule promised by The Jetsons - and that that's an example of the kind of technological change we need to be thinking about.

His other ideas are more prosaic and immediately practical, from small houses to solve the housing crisis - which are an actual thing and can be built in two days - to recycling plastics to use in roading, which they are already doing in New Plymouth.

I have lost count of the number of ideas David told me about; in the venue and green room before the debate; on stage during the debate; and afterwards. Dozens of them, and not one of them the kind of passing thought bubble favoured by some politicians but well-researched, entirely plausible concepts which would all, in their own way, contribute to solving our problems. And he's passionate about it all, to a degree that exceeds everyone else on the platform that evening.

But is the mayoralty of Lower Hutt the place for someone brimming with ideas? Local authorities are notoriously slow to act and conservative in approach. Not only would David as mayor have to win the backing of the majority of councillors for his ideas - possible, depending on who else is elected - but he'd need to get the entire administration to think - and act - outside the box. And a local authority is a box - a box where initiative is buried after it dies waiting for action (albeit that I'm optimistic that the new, energetic and responsive CEO will change that to some extent).

The mayoralty needs someone who is, to a degree, a knee-cracker. David wouldn't crack your knees, but he'd have a damned good idea of how to fix your arthritis. Assuming he doesn't win the mayoralty - and he was a crowd favourite at the debate - I'd love to see him in some sort of Special Advisor to the Mayor role, a Gandalf to the mayor's Frodo, if you will. And it's an unforgiveable oversight that he's not on the board, or in an advisory role, at the heart of innovation in the Hutt - Callaghan Innovation.

Pity the incumbent. Who can forget "Aunty Helen", beloved by all but the fiercest National / Act partisan for a while, but by her third term so on the nose as to be defeated by a glib merchant banker. Like all long-term incumbents, sitting mayor Ray Wallace is forced to spend much of his time defending his record, which limits the time he has to speak about his plans for the Hutt Valley in the future. Only one vote at the council table, he must stand by every decision made, and take all the blame when it goes wrong, even if, as in some cases, it was passed by unanimous vote.

After three terms in the mayoralty, Ray has much to be proud of. Lower Hutt had begun to transform and ambitious plans were in place to turn the city to face its greatest asset, the river. Then two earthquakes struck, and everything changed. Now, the city faces a huge bill for reinforcing or replacing the Central Library, the Naenae Pool, Petone wharf and a growing list of other assets.

Given that situation, it would have been easy for him to retire and take credit for what had gone before, and avoid responsibility for the hard choices that are to come. It's to his immense credit that he hasn't, and that he's determined to - somehow - avoid crippling rates rises and a mountain of debt while continuing the transformation of the Hutt and saving its quake-prone buildings. Unfortunately for him, no one knows how many buildings might yet prove unstable, nor how much they'll cost to fix. This inability to offer hard numbers - not his fault - and unwillingness to admit that some things on the will probably need to be struck off - understandably, as each project has its fierce supporters, though probably unwisely - meant he came off as particularly defensive during the debate.

He's also faced a campaign of deliberate misinformation. I think it's fair to say that over nine years as mayor Ray has made plenty of decisions which are legitimately open to criticism without needing to make stuff up, and it's incredibly disappointing to see "fake news" reach Lower Hutt.

Ray's greatest asset - his determination - also translates into something that can be seen as a flaw; a tendency to bat away criticism without pausing to consider its validity. A case in point being the hotel project in High Street, the details of which are secret. Of course he's right in saying commercial confidentiality is commonplace. But this is public money, invested on a promise, in a project which shows every sign of floundering. And if that's not bad enough, the Events Centre - run by the same company under contract to Council - has lost $700,000 and needs a bailout. Again, the reason he gives - that without a four star hotel there's nowhere to house conference delegates - is true. But that's the fault of the very same people running the Events Centre! What sort of contract allows them to avoid any responsibility?

Even if it proved impossible in the end to pressure the company into the release of even some details, some sympathy with the crowd - who cheered across party lines when I made the point that spending of public money should always be transparent and accountable - would have taken him a long way.

Instead, he chose to offer them the unpalatable truth - that it's probably not going to happen. That's a principled stance from a man under a lot of pressure. But that is creating in voters' minds a choice between competence and empathy. It remains to be seen which they value the most.

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