Negative third-party campaigning in the Hawke's Bay Regional Council elections looks set to begin, with candidates looking over their shoulder wondering who has hired political strategist Simon Lusk.
Mr Lusk created a stir at a candidate's information evening at the Hawke's Bay Regional Council chambers recently when he asked about the rules for a negative third-party campaign.
"I wanted to know if they understood what the rules were and what the implications are. I'm a campaigner and running campaigns," Mr Lusk said.
He was working with "quite a large number of people to run a campaign for change", due to start next week. "There is a significant amount of money for this campaign and a significant number of people that are pissed off with the Regional Council that are supporting me," he said.
A negative third-party campaign is when somebody who is not standing for election runs a campaign to discredit candidates.
HBRC candidate and former Federated Farmers Hawke's Bay president Kevin Mitchell said he was shocked when Mr Lusk questioned council staff about negative third-party campaigns at the HBRC candidate meeting.
'I thought it was quite sinister. I've never heard of it in little old Hawke's Bay. I don't know who they are targeting.
"It took the council staff unawares too - it was pretty obvious they had never been asked that question before.
"'If you want to oust somebody we have a perfectly good democratic system to do that. You are upfront and say why you are standing.
"But the way he was describing it, I didn't like the vibe," Mr Mitchell said.
Mr Lusk has been involved in nine party selection processes for the 2008 and 2009 national elections, winning seven.
He was Chris Tremain's campaign manager in 2005 when he took Napier for National for the first time since 1951.
Mr Lusk is a right-winger but gained the ire of the National Party last year when he wrote that National MPs "will not listen" to donors and urged supporters to "blackball" current MPs to stop them "trading on their time as MPs to build a lucrative business career".
Mr Lusk declined to give further information on the upcoming campaign.
"The guys I am working with have asked that I don't comment until the campaign is under way, which will be next week," he said.
Just who has hired Mr Lusk remains a mystery, but issues such as council amalgamation and the proposed dam for irrigation have made for a torrid election.
Mr Lusk is a passionate fisherman and hunter, but Fish and Game Hawke's Bay regional manager Peter McIntosh said while he knew Mr Lusk, Fish and Game was not involved in any election lobbying. Pro-amalgamation group A Better Hawke's Bay chairwoman Rebecca Turner said she knew "nothing about him".
A local politician described Mr Lusk as "a hired gun" who offers his services to candidates.
"He charges $10,000 if they get elected and $5,000 if they don't. Simon Lusk says he is running a campaign here in Hawke's Bay but everyone is saying he is not working for them. So I am not sure who he is working for," the politician said.
Hawke's Bay Regional Council deputy chairman Ewan McGregor, who is running again, said he knew little about Mr Lusk but believed third-party negative campaigning was a growing trend in local government campaigning.
"I believe there are trends developing that I believe we can do without, and employing anyone who specialises in the denigration of opponents is one of them. We saw this trend emerging three years ago."
Candidate and former Pipfruit New Zealand CEO Peter Beaven said he had received a call from Mr Lusk.
"I gathered from the conversation was that his ambition was to throw out all the Councillors and have a fresh set of faces at the table but I have no idea what his strategies are or who is funding him."
Mr Beaven spoke to a meeting of Twyford growers last night who are aggrieved about water restrictions during the last drought - many suffered losses after the Council shut off all irrigation, denying even enough water to stop trees from dying.
HBRC incumbent Murray Douglas said the election waters were already muddied.
"Elections to date have had a degree of politeness and sense of personal respect - this time that may not be the case," he said.
"There is a certain amount of misinformation going out there about councillors - to a limited extent I'm one of them - that is coming out of somewhere."