After six years as the district's most passionate champion, the ubiquitous Annette Main is stepping down as mayor. She talks to Zaryd Wilson about the challenges, the successes and the controversies of her terms in office.

In 2010 Annette Main was elected mayor of Wanganui. Next month she'll be the former mayor of Whanganui.

It's changes like that - changes that at first glance don't look much but have had a significant impact on the district - that will define her six years in office.

In name and nature, Whanganui is not the same district she inherited.

In two terms she has focussed on restoring the district's reputation, backed changing of the district's name, helped get the new wastewater treatment plant over the line and steered Whanganui through its biggest flood on record.

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The city also became internationally recognised for its push for digital infrastructure.

"As a mayor you do have a lot of influence, but it comes down to a vote. I cannot think of one thing - one decision at this council - that I have made on my own," she says.

"I couldn't have gone to more things than I went to - I couldn't have been more out there any more than I have been.

"I've pretty much been up at 5 o'clock every morning and not in bed until 11 o'clock practically the whole time."

Main entered the mayoral office on the back of 12 years as a regional councillor.

She was no more political than the average person when she was younger but says that changed after she settled back in Whanganui, moved up the river and become interested in the environmental issues surrounding it.

In her four terms on Horizons Regional Council she came to understand local body politics and appreciate its place.

"I realised how much having a good council - a council that knew its role - meant to the success of an area. Until then I probably would've never given it a thought."

Main flirted with the idea of running for mayor in 2004 when Michael Laws first stood, but instead backed John Martin.

Laws went on to win the 2004 election and Main says there were people in the district concerned about what happened to council over the next six years.

Whanganui's reputation took a dive, she says, and by 2010 she felt compelled to stand.

"We had a huge group of people who were of a like mind, people who didn't like what was happening with Whanganui and they worked really hard to make sure they had a mayor with a different style.

"People needed to feel they were part of a community and were able to speak up, and I said I wouldn't be the kind of person that would prevent people from saying anything. I might not agree, but I wouldn't criticise them publicly for disagreeing."

Laws had stepped aside in 2010 and Main edged her closest rival Dot McKinnon by 219 votes.

"I knew that everywhere I went people would say things like 'Why would you want to live there?' ... and those kinds of things.

"We got such a high profile for having so many things wrong with us.

"I said that one day I wanted people to say, when I said I was from Whanganui, "Wow, you're lucky - it sounds like things are going really well there'."

That was a priority and Main used her position as the go-to person for comment on the city.

"It's not that hard - we all know that there's some pretty fantastic things that you can be talking about in Whanganui."

Being mayor requires all sorts of skills - Annette Main reads with Gonville kindergarten's Bella-Gray Churton and Tumanako Pehi in 2014. Photo/ Stuart Munro
Being mayor requires all sorts of skills - Annette Main reads with Gonville kindergarten's Bella-Gray Churton and Tumanako Pehi in 2014. Photo/ Stuart Munro

Alongside the professional challenges came a personal one.

Just before the 2013 election Main's husband John died suddenly. She considered not running.

"It's not a job you can do easily without a partner. You need to have somebody to kind of look after the rest of your life," she says.

"But we knew what would happen ... we knew exactly what would happen and we'd all put in too much work into changing things.

"It's hard to remember now - it was easy to push that and all the implications of that to the back of your mind because you had a campaign to run."

Laws stood again in 2013 but the incumbent mayor won comfortably, having had three years to settle into the role.

Main's second term was about using the foundation laid in the first three years.

In 2015 the New Zealand Geographic Board recommended changing the name of the district to Whanganui and - whether she wants it or not - many will see that as a big part of her legacy.

"It was a council decision, not my decision," she says. "It's interesting how I see so much out there that says that I did this. I didn't do this."

The Whanganui District Council was asked by iwi to go to the board and support the spelling of Whanganui as Whanganui.

"It's as simple as that. It can be wound up to huge argument of fear but actually it's just about knowing where you come from."

There is no argument, she says.

"Because I know what's right. You cannot deny that we live in a place named after the natural feature that runs through it. It just doesn't make sense to deny it and no matter what arguments anyone puts up about it, it was right."

Main says resistance comes from a lack of understanding.

"I don't see how anybody, once they actually listen to what happened and hear some of the stories, can argue the argument they put forward about Maori in this country."

She's proud of council but "less proud of organisations that have chosen to ignore the government's official spelling of the name of the place".

The district became Whanganui under Annette Main's mayoralty. Photo/ Bevan Conley
The district became Whanganui under Annette Main's mayoralty. Photo/ Bevan Conley

Correcting the spelling of Whanganui was a part of building a relationship between council and iwi - another feature of her mayoralty and one which Main says is critical to the district's future.



"I find it difficult to convey to people how important Maori are to the future success of Whanganui.

"I've been fortunate because from the time I moved up the river 25 years ago I began to understand our history - not because I was taught, because I actually saw it in practice and I saw what Whanganui iwi were contributing to this community."

Main hopes that is understood by her successor.

"If we get the wrong person in, I am really, really worried," she says.

The council's push to be one of the first city's to get fibre broadband was a big part of Main's time in office and the foundation of the district's economic strategy.

It's one way the district can attract business and bring people home.

"You can see it happening," she says. "It's not big in terms of large numbers of businesses but it's growing. It is really important for us to attract people who have lived other places."

The final major decision her council made was to sign off the new $41million wastewater treatment - a decision that still faces much opposition.

"The wastewater plant is a complicated issue and it hasn't helped that there have been people actively working against it," she says.

"It's been difficult for people to understand because of this barrage of misinformation.

"I'm proud of how much time the councillors were prepared to invest in actually getting this right."

Annette Main with Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy and Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce at the launch of the region's economic plan this year. Photo/ Stuart Munro
Annette Main with Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy and Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce at the launch of the region's economic plan this year. Photo/ Stuart Munro

A lot of this has happened on social media where Main has had a noticeable presence, especially in responding to criticism.

"They are different times and people have got access to social media, to hear people's views so it's been necessary to get into that space and use it.

"I don't play the blame game, I don't criticise people, I just try to make sure that they're on the right track."

Main says she is unaffected by personal criticism.

"It doesn't worry me because when you come from the right place and you know that you're doing it for the right reasons, then it can't touch you.

"But I get wound up about people lying - knowingly lying and twisting things and saying stuff that you know is not true but you can't say because you're going to betray somebody else."

One thing Main says she never achieved was to effectively communicate the role of council within the community.

"It's still this attitude that the council is somehow the enemy, rather than actually being the agency that is making sure the place you live works for you."

She knows what gets people offside - "It's the rates bill, and I acknowledge our rates are high.

"But they are high because we live in a place that has got way more than most places. We have delivered so much."

Annette Main chairs another council meeting. Photo/ Bevan Conley
Annette Main chairs another council meeting. Photo/ Bevan Conley

Many expected her to run for a third term, but she is ready to step down - "I promised my family, that's probably the main reason.

"And because I knew Hamish (deputy mayor Hamish McDouall) was willing to stand for mayor. It meant I knew there was a way for the community to keep on the same path that it was on.

"If he hadn't stood, I might've had to reconsider. That sounds a bit arrogant but I'm not hearing from the candidates that are there that they actually understand the community in which they live.

"I don't think enough people understand that they can't change things on their own - it has to be alongside the other people that have got a part to play."

Main will remain involved in the community through various organisations and she's running for the Whanganui District Health Board.

She says Whanganui is going to be all right.

"Because it's changing as people discover it and as more people realise just how great it is and that kind of feeling flows on to other people ... it'll be fine.

"I only have to stand down at the market on Saturday morning and look at everybody chatting and know that we're in good heart.

"I think that's the biggest thing that's changed. Saying we're proud of where we live sounds a bit trite - but I think we really are."