Nominations have closed, and campaigning is under way. If voters want their ballots to effectively shape the future of Hamilton and the Waikato, they need to learn what each would-be mayor, councillor and board member stands for, what positions they will take on critical issues, which initiatives they will champion, and the pledges they are willing to offer.
The public deserves substance from candidates and thorough coverage by the press. That's what should determine where tick marks land.
At centre stage for Hamilton is the challenge to sitting Mayor Julie Hardaker by West Ward Cr Dave Macpherson, newcomer Ian Hanley and perennial Jack Gielen. Initial campaign chatter last week was less than informative. The big non-issue was whether managerial staff is wagging council - not a good start.
Fortunately, leading challenger Macpherson has a fairly long council record that provides a good starting point for interested voters.
He is a longstanding advocate of change to public transport, including transfer of control and management of the city's bus system from Waikato Regional Council to HCC and development of commuter rail between Hamilton and Auckland. He has opposed sale of "community" assets, including pensioner housing and the YMCA, to reduce debt, but has supported sale of "commercial" assets such as partial interests in city hotels.
His other recent specifics include advocacy of a "living wage" for council employees, support for Ruakura residents adversely affected by the Tainui Group Holdings industrial development plan, and opposition to adding waste product hydrofluorosilicic acid (H2SiF6) to city drinking water. He recently co-authored a fast-tracking plan for Hamilton playground development. Earlier policy initiatives included rates rebates for low-income earners, kerbside recycling, and a council buy-local policy.
Hamilton voters will want to hear more about these and other issues from both Macpherson and Hardaker to understand what direction each would lead the city as mayor. And with many HCC decisions being decided by a single vote or two, every council candidate owes the public a detailed statement on the widest possible range of issues - from fluoridation and asset sales to pools, parks, parking and speed limits; from altered developer fees to changes in the city's land-value rating system.
From Waikato Regional Council candidates, voters deserve specifics as well. Unlike the more fluid alignment of councillors from issue to issue at HCC, WRC has been a study in sharp contrasts, entrenched positions and predicable bloc voting. Here are the basics.
For three years, WRC has essentially comprised two groups - a majority of eight self-proclaimed "independents" (all rewarded with committee chairmanships and extra pay) and the sidelined minority of four Rates Control Team members. The Peter Buckley-led "independents", while refusing to publicly identify as a formal group, have stuck together. They most notably pushed through the $6 million handout for the St Peter's School velodrome (costing ratepayers close to $11m including interest) and have kept in the pipeline a lavish $34m plan for council's own offices.
Rates Control councillors, while supporting a wide range of environmental and other policy initiatives, have opposed the velodrome and office initiatives, as well as the significant increases to council staff. This time, the group is fielding four candidates in the Hamilton constituency, united first and foremost by a pledge to oppose any further rates increases above basic consumer price index (CPI) inflation.
Facing a potential rebellion in their "independents" group and ousting as council leaders, Buckley, and his sidekick deputy Simon Friar, announced their own slate of candidates last week, offering nothing new on policy.
Voters should turn out for meet-the-candidate events, and candidates should communicate their positions on the issues every way possible. Bare-bone 150-word statements enclosed with voting papers are not enough.
Issues-free electioneering has been part of a wider systemic problem in local government, wherein candidates avoid stating their positions clearly for fear they will be accused of having "a closed mind" if elected. In the end, voters don't really know who stands for what. Nominally "independent" councillors drift from decision to decision, with no agenda or consistent programme, and with little or no accountability to the public.
Local elections past have typically offered up oblique promises, bland claims of competence, and vague position statements from the candidate field. Hopefully, the next six weeks will be different. Voters need more than personality, a photo, and a brief bio to go on. Candidates need to rely less on name recognition and start talking specifics.
Geoffrey and Reihana Robinson comment regularly on local government, public policy, and environmental issues. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.