By Peter de Graaf
Returned community board member Kelly van Gaalen plans to pick up where she left off beautifying Kaikohe when she was forced to resign last year due to cannabis charges.
Mrs van Gaalen was the highest-polling community board candidate in the 2013 elections but stood down mid-term after she was charged with possession of cannabis for supply. A two-year prison term was reduced on appeal to community work and a night-time curfew.
The 38-year-old is now determined to carry on where she left off, with town beautification and a kids' BMX track on the old landfill site her top priorities.
Along with the two other Kaikohe candidates on the Kaikohe-Hokianga Community Board Mrs van Gaalen was elected unopposed and was "absolutely" disappointed there was no election in the Kaikohe subdivision.
"I needed to know, for my own self, if the community wanted me back. The voting numbers were important."
The feedback she had received so far, however, was that most people were pleased she was back.
"I'd hope that the people who have a problem with my personal situation can put that aside and know that I'm capable of helping Kaikohe."
Mrs van Gaalen said she believed the past year had given her greater inner strength and resolve; qualities she would to put to use for the town.
"I considered myself a strong person anyway and I think I'm stronger now. And I'm definitely not ever going back [to jail]," she said.
The experience had also taught her not to take her freedom for granted.
"People don't know how lucky they are, just to be able to freely take a walk up the cycle trail for example. You really appreciate freedom when you've been in a cage."
Mrs van Gaalen said the town beautification she began as a community board member and Kaikohe Business Association employee had come almost to a standstill since she stood down.
Ensuring the town was "clean and pretty" boosted pride as well as encouraging tourists to stop and businesses to set up shop. The bottom end of town had been transformed in recent years and new businesses had moved in, but the top end remained drab.
She also wanted to see more culture in town. Kaikohe was the heart of Ngapuhi but there wasn't a single carving on the main street, she said.
Mrs van Gaalen had been asked to be a poster girl for cannabis law reform but turned it down. She would rather use her time to get new recycling bins or public gardens for Kaikohe, she said.
The keen gardener also hopes to use her restored freedom to study horticulture at NorthTec.