Kaipara District Council 'a sweet little piece of democracy': departing mayor

8:12 pm on 11 September 2022
Farming grounds Jason Smith, seen here at home in Matakohe

Photo: Northern Advocate, Tania Whyte

Kaipara mayor Dr Jason Smith was in the United States when he read a New Zealand Herald article that would change the course of his life.

Kaipara District Council (KDC)'s 2016-elected mayor Greg Gent was standing down. Gent was the first elected mayor after four years of government-appointed commissioners running the council. His three-year term was meant to run until 2019.

"Hope had sprouted. The new buds of democracy had been formed (with the first new mayor after four years) and were starting to shoot," Smith said.

"Then this massive firestorm came through."

In the United States, the fifth-generation Kaipara sheep farmer decided he wanted to do something to help his district. That became the mayoralty. By the end of 2017 he was campaigning in what was a rare-for-New Zealand early-term mayoral byelection. By February 2018 he was mayor, which he has been since.


Smith will not be standing again at the upcoming local government elections on 8 October, instead working towards putting his hat into the ring to stand as the National MP for Northland.

Smith became the first full-term Kaipara mayor in the wake of government-appointed commissioners taking over the council helm for four years - from 2012 to 2016 - in what is still New Zealand's longest-serving tenure of its type.

They had been put in to helm the council after a huge cost blowout with the Mangawhai Ecocare wastewater treatment plant, hundreds of ratepayers had revolted and refused to pay their rates.

"The scheme cost had ballooned from $15 million to $83.4m. Kaipara District Council has 40000 ratepayers. How does that work," Smith said.

He knew there would be challenges upon becoming the mayor as a result, but hadn't realised the extent of these.

The issues were bigger than he had anticipated, stretching across many spheres and going back some time.

"There were legacy governance issues inside the council," Smith said.

He said the time without elected representatives helming the council was the darkest day for Kaipara's democracy.

"That time with the commissioners was the most negative experience for democracy. It was very impactful on ratepayers' sense of trust in the council and within the council itself. It was also impactful for central government's sense of trust in the council," Smith said.

Repairing the council's governance was one of his first goals and has remained an abiding mission. Being trustworthy, engendering confidence and faith as well as being extremely transparent in decision-making have been among the qualities of good governance fostered.

Smith's has been a Northland life less ordinary, a global citizen with mud on his boots and living in Matakohe; a locally-based community leader simultaneously carrying international and local perspectives. Fluent in French, he was the first New Zealander to work as a research intern at the European Parliament (in Luxembourg Belgium).

Smith was born in Dargaville and grew up on the family farm in Ruawai. He went to Ruawai Primary, Ruawai College then in Y9 to Kings College, where he led the school choir. While at Kings College he won a scholarship to Rugby School in England, where he again led its choir. The scholarship was the first of what would eventually be seven for study internationally and in New Zealand over ensuing years.

His time at Rugby School also included returning there for a time to run a tourism business, showing an All Blacks team around the school, the birthplace of rugby.

From there, he won a scholarship to England's Royal Agricultural College where he gained a Bachelor of Science (Hons) in agriculture and land management. From there, as part of his degree, he went on a research internship to the European Parliament, again on a scholarship, where he researched New Zealand-European Trade. That next became a research position where he wrote a paper based on the trade war between Europe which would not accept growth hormone-treated beef from the United States.

"This issue came about in the early nineties because young Italian boys started growing breasts," Smith said.

Once back in New Zealand, at the age of 22 he bought the Matakohe family property and started a farm ecotourism business which won a New Zealand tourism award in its second year of business.

"Tourism is a major sweet spot for me," Smith said.

Kaipara Mayor Jason Smith at the Auckland Northland border during the height of strictly-policed different control levels between the two regions

Kaipara Mayor Jason Smith at the Auckland Northland border during the height of strictly-policed different control levels between the two regions Photo: Northern Advocate, Michael Cunningham

That business stopped suddenly with 9/11. He pivoted at the age of 30 to head KDC's economic development agency. Smith went on to do a doctorate at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), winning a $75,000 scholarship for this, New Zealand's biggest doctoral scholarship at the time.

His doctorate focused on the economic development of New Zealand's creative economy including films, fashion, art, movies and musical design. From there he worked at the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, before eventually returning home to the North.

Being a farmer grounds him.

"It gives me a massive sense of place," Smith said.

Home for the mayor and partner Justine Daw is the Smith family's 1873 homestead on their Matakohe property which includes two kilometres of shoreline. The farm has been in the Smith family since 1862. His forebears were part of the Albertland settlement programme. The property is part of a 600 hectare sheep and beef farming operation also in Ruawai.

Ruawai is also home for Smith's cousin, former New Zealand politician and Speaker of House of Representatives Lockwood Smith KNZM.

Tenacious, visionary and decisive are three words mayor Smith uses to describe himself when put on the spot by Local Democracy Reporting Northland.

There is no Kaipara mayoral office - at Smith's say - in the new Northland Regional Council (NRC) KDC office building in Dargaville.

"Our ratepayers couldn't afford the $250,000 that would have cost."

Smith's office is his dual fuel Ford Mondeo - and also at home in Matakohe, Kaipara's midway between the Tasman Sea and Dargaville in the west and the Pacific Ocean and Mangawhai in the east.

He pays for his own mobile phone and calls describing it as part of his public service.

There have been many developments, potential and already underway, in Smith's mayoral tenure. Some he is not in favour of.

Smith marched down Auckland's Queen Street as part of his council's ongoing fight against the council's proposed Dome Valley landfill, which includes land runoff that flows into the Kaipara Harbour. He has also been outspoken against Pakiri seabed sandmining, recently addressing a Mangawhai Heads Beach protest.

The Kaipara Harbour Wharves project's Pouto wharf is a development Smith is in favour of. He attended the first sod turning for the new wharf on Friday.

Another is sealing the almost final piece of Pouto Road's more southern end - a major chunk of sealing in "a job so big it can be seen from space," Smith said. Kaipara roading is a major focus.

Mangawhai and Three Waters remains a defining Kaipara issue. The Environment Court recently halted Private Plan change which KDC voted in favour of in April, upon the recommendation of hearing commissioners. The plan change underpinned future growth for the huge $750m Mangawhai Central development - in New Zealand's fastest-growing coastal settlement - due to lack of Three Waters provision ahead of the development.

"The challenge for a small council that's growing fast is that it doesn't have the capacity to invest in advance of everything happening. When you have fast growth it's a scramble to keep on top of that," Smith said.

"Mangawhai is on its way to becoming a big town and is growing very fast. In that fast growth there can be speed wobbles and bumps along the way."

Mangawhai and Dargaville are key centres in lower Northland's Kaipara district that links Auckland and the North. Everybody travelling into and out of the region by road must pass through it.

Smith's much-loved Kaipara is a blend of the past, present and future - a special area, he said.

He predicts Kaipara will change shape into the future. Auckland's ongoing growth will continue to push northward into Kaipara, with original settlements such as Maungaturoto one day being connected by train and becoming commuter hubs to New Zealand's biggest city.

Smith said the government's reforms will completely alter local government across Kaipara and the region.

There will still be community, but that will look different from what is in Northland now.

"There will be less local democracy, but things will eventually turn back to more like they are now," Smith said.

The tide would eventually turn back.

Smith is proud of Kaipara and its 25,000 people.

"The people of Kaipara are strong and very resilient. Kaipara people are very unshowy and just get on with the job.

He said helming the team bringing good governance back for a council that went without local democracy for so long has been a mayoralty highlight. Good governance was about strong opinions lightly held.

"Council is all about decision making. That's what we do," Smith said.

"It's great, those moments when councillors come to a meeting together with a certain viewpoint and are willing to change their position on the basis of discussions."

Smith is passionate about his council.

"We have 2500 constituents per councillor. Other councils in Northland such as Whangārei District Council have more like 9000 and in Auckland Council it's more like 10,000."

"That makes for great democracy," he said.

"We didn't have democracy for such a long time and now we do.

"Kaipara District Council is a sweet little piece of democracy," he said.

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

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