Tauranga councillor Andrew Hollis says he pulled out of a charity debate on Māori wards just days out from the event to "avoid creating a controversy".
Hollis, who voted against adding a Māori ward to Tauranga City Council last month and once made a comment supporting burning the Treaty of Waitangi, was set to debate the issue with self-described "recovering racist" and Māori wards advocate, former New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd, on Sunday.
The event is going ahead with Judd as a solo act, but Judd has challenged Hollis to "reconsider", saying there is "nothing to be fearful of".
Hollis, however, says that he is not scared and has a range of reasons for stepping back from the event, including that the "timing is off and the opportunity for misdirection is high".
He told the Bay of Plenty Times he did not want to be seen "creating a controversy" or "any kind of media storm" while an observer team was probing the causes of issues between elected members at the council, in case it triggered more issues.
Hollis did not want to do anything to "back up" any accusation or view that he was the problem.
"I'd be very happy for [the observers] to spend the time with us very calmly and quietly and nothing controversial really blowing up. And I certainly don't want to go down that path where the activists are likely to use racism as a club."
Accusations of racism have dogged Hollis since his controversial Facebook comments about the Treaty of Waitangi were made public just after he was elected, prompting calls for him to resign or be banned from taking part in Treaty-related council issues.
He denies being racist and pursued a Code of Conduct complaint against Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell who called him a "f****** climate-denying racist" in a meeting in March. Powell was censured by the council.
Hollis said he was also concerned about being accused of pre-determination - bias in decision-making - for comments he might make in the debate if the ward issue came before the council again.
The Bay of Plenty Times has confirmed, however, the only circumstance where another vote of the council would be required was if the council decided to initiate a public referendum itself on its decision to introduce a Māori ward.
The council voted 6-4 last month to add the ward before the next election.
Hollis voted against the move. He called it "virtue signalling", "divisive", "the opposite of democracy" and "insulting" in the debate at the time.
He said this week he felt he was "pretty neutral" in his comments in the chamber.
He was not sure the issue would get the same fair hearing in a public debate and said people might take his comments out of context or raise his previous comments.
"I don't think it's any secret to anybody what I think of Māori wards, but I don't want it to get turned into a race or racism issue, I don't need any more of that in this triennium if I can avoid it."
He said he felt "uncomfortable" with the public debate.
"I have no agenda of this debate, I've got no format, I've got no means of preparing or controlling which direction the debate goes."
He denied being scared or not able to defend his viewpoint.
"I'm obviously not scared, I don't tend to feel terribly much fear on this particular topic and I'm certainly capable of attending democracy."
His intended opponent, ex-mayor Andrew Judd, said Hollis' decision to withdraw was "disappointing".
"If you stand strong to your convictions, you should be able to as a public servant or representative, be able to debate them in a free form like what was organised.
"If that's your view, that's your view - he shouldn't be hiding from it, seeing that he has let the organisers get to this point then pulled the pin."
Judd challenged Hollis to reconsider.
"I hope he reconsiders because we can always rejig it again if he turns up, and I put the challenge to him to reconsider that. There's nothing to be fearful of, because from debate comes growth, and as a councillor, he must know that."
Judd said he would still be speaking at the event and would be taking questions from the audience.
"I challenge anyone who disagrees [with me] to come and challenge. It will be safe, of course it will. Good people can disagree."
Event organiser Tommy Wilson of Te Tuinga Whanau Social Services Trust said Hollis' "late withdrawal" had forced a rejig of the event.
Now called an "An Evening with a Recovering Racist", Wilson said Judd will give a "moving account of his racist upbringing and how it led him to a place of redemption and reconciliation with Taranaki Māori".
Tickets to the debate will now be free. People who paid for tickets can get a refund or donate the fee to Kai Aroha.
Judd, an optician by trade, won the New Plymouth mayoralty in a landslide in 2013 but stood down from the following election after a citizens referendum overturned his council's decision to establish a Māori ward.
A petition demanding such a referendum in Tauranga is likely.
An Evening with a Recovering Racist
Speaker: Andrew Judd
When: Sunday, October 4 at 6pm
Where: Hinton Room, Greerton RSA.