Quiet Palmerston North mayoral race draws fear of low turnout

3:29 pm on 5 October 2022
Central Palmerston North.

Four candidates are standing for Palmerston North mayor, but few RNZ spoke to could name them all. Photo: RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

Palmerston North, a city of more than 90,000 people, is facing some hefty issues.

A new wastewater scheme could cost nearly $500 million and the city's pothole plague is causing widespread consternation.

But turnout in recent local body elections has been poor, a trend showing no sign of improving this year.

In past elections, Palmerston North voters have been able to choose from mayoral candidates such as the Naked Pie Man, or even Donut Man.

But their presence has not been enough to tempt locals to vote in big numbers, with turnout dwindling to just 37 percent in 2019, below the national average of 42 percent.

This year four candidates are standing for mayor, but nobody RNZ spoke to on city streets could name them all - incumbent Grant Smith, Ross Barber, Hussein Pierre Kikhounga-Ngot and Glenn Mitchell.

And among residents spoken to youth issues including crime, and potholes were top of mind.

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Grant Smith. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Smith, mayor since 2015, is frustrated by these too, but points to the massive investment in infrastructure over the past few years.

The government's Three Waters scheme could remove the wastewater burden from ratepayers, but Smith said he was not in favour of what is proposed.

"I think everybody agrees that we do need to do something in terms of investment, and the current model is not working.

"What's being proposed, with one size fits all, four big entities, I don't agree with personally."

Palmerston North had weathered the pandemic well enough, but that had come with challenges, he said.

"It's been a really disruptive last term, so even business as usual has been difficult for councils with Covid, all the world political stuff, supply chain issues, rising costs. It really makes governing a council difficult.

"I'm looking forward to some clear air."

Barber, under the Team God banner, is a veteran campaigner against what he claimed was corruption on the council and "a lack of financial integrity".

In past elections it has been reported he wouldn't be able to take his seat if he won, because he wasn't in control of his financial affairs, but he said that was not the case this time.

"I've got a document from my psychiatrist saying that I'm fully compos mentis and [there's] nothing wrong with me."

A former high school teacher, Mitchell, who lives on a lifestyle block just outside the city boundary, is against Three Waters and thinks the council is being profligate in signing off a $496 million wastewater scheme.

He'd like to see spending tightened, and more direct consultation with the public, through such means as online forums, for major decisions.

"I think it's pretty important that local people get a voice in major decisions regarding their water," he said.

"It seems to be that rates increases have been quite significant of late, and with rises in inflation in our country and the cost of living becoming harder, I feel council hasn't really been in touch with the people."

Kikhounga-Ngot, a former refugee from French Congo, holds similar views and said the most pressing issues people were raising with him during the campaign was council spending and rates.

He would like the council to tighten its belt, and cited the recent city branding to "Palmy" and a trial cycleway on a main city street, Pioneer Highway, as wasteful projects.

Ninety percent of the trial cycleway costs were paid for by Waka Kotahi.

"People are not happy about rates because they keep increasing, so people want to have a fair rate," he said.

"I always explain to them that the rates are the lifeblood of the city council. It's important to them to have transparency, to know how the money they're paying is used."

Smith acknowledged the mayoral campaign was quieter than the race for council seats, where 33 candidates are vying for 13 spots on the city general ward. Two Māori ward councillors have been elected unopposed.

None of the mayoral candidates is running under a political party banner.

Mitchell said he was associated with, but not a member of, anti-Covid mandate group Voices For Freedom.

Barber said Team God was made up of people with "Christian egos".

As of Friday, turnout stood at just over 10 percent.

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