Debate rages after Whakatane councillor ousted

1:03 pm on 7 November 2019

Many are calling for change following the election debacle at Whakatane District Council.

Whakatane District Council building

Photo: Supplied

A recount of votes following a random chance election in the Murupara-Galatea Ward has seen one councillor ousted after just one week and a new one elected.

After the initial vote count, newcomer Hinerangi Goodman and previous seat-holder Alison Silcock were tied.

The stalemate was broken by drawing names out of a hat and Mrs Goodman was declared the winner and sworn in, only to be removed a week later following a recount of votes at Mrs Silcock's request.

Debate has been raging in Murupara and the wider Whakatane district about how fair this process was, with many saying change needs to happen to prevent this situation in the future.

Mawera Karetai has been a strong voice for change, hosting debates involving the community and councillors on her Facebook page.

She believes it is time local government elections moved to a Single Transferable Vote system (STV).

Under a STV electoral system, voters rank candidates in their order of preference rather than simply giving one vote to one candidate as under the current system of First Past the Post (FPP).

Ms Karetai said STV didn't allow for ties to occur, was fairer and might remove the issue of vote-splitting.

"First Past the Post favours the incumbent and doesn't allow an opportunity for someone new to come in," she said.

"However, the biggest problem is the order in which the process is carried out after the election. When there is a draw there should be a recount first to ensure the first count was accurate, before names are drawn out of a hat and someone is elected and sworn in."

Ms Karetai has run in elections for both the Whakatane council and the Bay of Plenty District Health Board and said FPP was a "soul destroying" process.

She feels the process is so wrong she is now mustering a group of people to lobby the Minister for Local Government Nanaia Mahuta.

"There has been so much emotion around this election and we need to make change happen," said Ms Karetai.

"It will be my mission to make change to the legislation that governs local government elections."

The game of musical chairs has angered many Murupara residents, who have taken to their Facebook community page "You know you're from Murupara when..." to express their disappointment.

Residents of the predominately Māori town have said they are unhappy to be represented by a white woman and that the result would have been different if Mrs Goodman had been the one requesting a vote recount.

Mrs Goodman was the first Māori woman to represent the ward and Mrs Silcock previously angered many in the ward by voting against Maori seats in the last triennium.

Through the debate on her own page, Ms Karetai said she had seen insults flung at everyone and she felt sorry for everyone involved.

"People have been blaming the council, but it is not their fault, they have just been following the legislation. It is the legislation that is wrong," she said.

Ms Karetai said abuse had been levelled at both Mrs Silcock and the third competitor in the race, Jackie Te Amo.

Many have said Ms Te Amo took votes away from Mrs Goodman by giving voters two Māori candidates to choose from.

However, Ms Karetai said this wasn't fair and noted Ms Te Amo entered the race first and had already served on the community board.

"This is not a race issue, this is a procedural issue," she said. "We need to put our energy into changing the legislation."

A question of timing

Questions have been raised as to why the Whakatane District Council held its swearing-in ceremony knowing its election results were uncertain.

Hinerangi Goodman was sworn in at the ceremony on 25 October despite Mrs Silcock lodging a request for a recount of votes the day before in the Whakatane District Court.

Mrs Goodman said for her to go through the ceremony and then be ousted trampled on her mana and broke Māori tikanga.

"This is a big insult to the people who voted for me and my own people who came down and took part in the powhiri at council," said Mrs Goodman.

"The significance of that ceremony … it means everything is good, sealed and done. It really cuts across all boundaries of our culture, our tikanga.

"This whole thing exposes the weakness of legislation which governs local government and for Māori even more so. It insults the very processes of tikanga that they asked us to perform."

The two other district councils in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, Opotiki and Kawerau, both held their swearing-in ceremonies a week after the Whakatane council and there has been criticism that Whakatane was too quick to sign in its councillors.

Whakatane mayor Judy Turner said the council had to swear in the councillors when it did as there was a legislative requirement for all councils to adopt their Annual Report by 31 October.

"It was necessary to have the council sworn in ahead of this date given the substantial change in the make-up of our council and to be able to brief elected members and give them some assurance of the robust and lengthy process that council had gone through to develop its Annual Report 2018/19," Mrs Turner said.

"It is not uncommon for a new council to adopt the previous year's Annual Report, given the legislative timeframes that guide this. Many councils across the country found themselves in this position but without the added election result complexity."

It is understood the office of the auditor-general was also understaffed at the time so was late approving the report for the council, which was not given an extension.

Mrs Turner also said the council decided to swear in councillors despite the uncertainty around the Murupara-Galatea Ward as it had been given advice that the recount process could take up to three weeks depending on the availability of a district court judge, which the council had no control over.

When asked if Mrs Goodman was made aware that a recount had been called for before the swearing-in ceremony, Mrs Turner said the recount application was a district court judicial process that sat outside the council's authority or realm of influence.

Mrs Goodman has assured the council and the community that this is not the last they will see of her.

"I'm tired, worn out and beat up, but this is not the end," she said.

"We are looking at several avenues of action. I will not take this lying down."

Despite being disappointed at the result, Mrs Goodman is philosophical about the outcome and said perhaps she was meant to be making change outside of council rather than at the table.

She said the New Zealand Māori Council was now involved and she was working to ensure this situation didn't affect another Māori candidate. Mrs Goodman was the first Māori woman to represent the ward.

"We need to think about the whole process and what can be done better," she said.

"It's about rising up or shutting up and we're rising. There is work to be done and this is a time to quieten down, reflect and see what needs to be done to change the legislation.

"If an injunction does happen it needs to happen now."

Returning councillor reacts

In requesting a recount, Alison Silcock said she simply wanted a definitive answer and closure following her eviction from the Whakatane District Council based on random chance.

"I did the recount to satisfy myself that that was the community's final decision," said Mrs Silcock.

"Of course, I stood to win, just like Hinerangi (Goodman) and Jackie (Te Amo) stood to win - you don't run to come second. But, to me, it was a final result and closure whatever it was."

Many have questioned Mrs Silcock's timing in requesting the recount, but she said she could not request the recount until the result had been publicly announced, which only gave her two days before the council's swearing-in ceremony.

"Whakatane is not the only one, there are various mayors and councillors going for recounts throughout the country," Mrs Silcock said.

"But we had a unique situation with the Annual Report needing to be approved for the auditor-general."

There has also been anger from many in the Murupara community who were delighted to have a Māori representative for the predominately Māori town and were disappointed to see that prospect leave.

This anger has seen many vent their frustrations online, insulting Mrs Silcock and claiming the process was racist, rigged and a circus.

Mrs Silcock has been avoiding Facebook but said she also had many supporters, including Mem Jenner who wrote a post in support of her, which attracted many positive comments.

"Whatever you do there will always be a faction that will be anti, I haven't seen it, but I know it has been torrid," she said.

"But there are a lot of people, Māori and non-Māori, who are pleased the process has been followed correctly and this is the outcome. Those people supported the process and support what I have done previously in the community."

Despite the negativity and controversy surrounding her re-election to council, Mrs Silcock is reluctant to say whether change is needed in the system.

Some have said a recount should have been done before the random chance election was made, but Mrs Silcock said she had heard anecdotally that a tie was made in Queenstown following a recount.

"I think, like all legislation, there needs to be a review from time to time," she said.

"Not a whole change, but just like the bylaws that come through council, there are checks, balances and tweaks that are more in keeping with 2019 rather than 2010 or further back when these laws were drafted."

Mrs Silcock's recount was made through the Electoral Act 2001, section 90.

The council originally announced Mrs Silcock would be sworn in on November 7, but this has been delayed until November 13. She believes this is so the council can arrange something that will not impact Mrs Goodman's mana.

"I am not sure what they are planning but I believe something should be done for every councillor who might find themselves in her position."

Mayor Judy Turner said the delay was due to the changing availability of speakers and reports for the agenda that were initially intended.

"We are very mindful of the number of meetings and training sessions the council has between now and Christmas and want to be as efficient with people's precious time as practicable," said Mrs Turner.

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