The Far North had the opportunity to stage something of a revolution on Saturday, and chose not to take it. With one or two exceptions it voted for the status quo, although the record number of candidates might have had something to do with that.
Three years ago John Carter saw off his sole challenger, Peter Gill, by more than 6000 votes to win a second term as mayor. On Saturday he emerged from an 11-way race with a majority of just under 1800 over his closest contender, former deputy mayor Tania McInnes, who had offered evolution, while one-term councillor Dave Hookway, a true revolutionary, came in third, Gill fading to sixth, behind Kaitaia businessman Monty Knight and former gang leader Jay Hepi.
As some expected, Mr Carter might have well have benefited from the fact that those who wanted him gone were spoiled for choice, whereas a single challenger might have produced a very different outcome. Certainly a tick under 30 per cent of all votes cast for the mayoralty is hardly a ringing endorsement, perhaps more the result of a strong personal following for Mr Carter than an expression of faith in what the council has done over the last three years and might do over the next three.
Challenging a well-liked mayor, despite the widespread perception that the council is not performing well, was always going to be difficult, even for McInnes and Hookway, who offered very different alternatives. To some degree, more for Hookway than McInnes, delivering what they were promising would have depended upon also electing a council that would have supported them, however. Given Saturday's results, Hookway in particular might have struggled to unite what he described as a dysfunctional council.
What is not hypothetical is the job that now faces Carter. He has three years in which to create a legacy, or to demonstrate that the problems that have dogged this council since it was fashioned from four counties and two boroughs in 1989 remain as intractable as they proved for his predecessors.
Three years ago, having just won his second term, he spoke of the need for better communication and a "hell of a lot of improvement" in service delivery. What's changed? Last week he said the biggest single issue for the council over the net triennium would be communication, and while he campaigned, in part, on the basis that good things are happening at and within the council, that is still very much a work in progress.
On Saturday he spoke of a trifecta — the council's elected members, staff, and the community all had a role to play in communicating with each other, he said, and that was a fair assessment. There is every reason now to expect a much greater effort in that regard from this 'newish' crop of councillors, and equally from the staff.
Almost from its inception this council has displayed a remarkable ability to nurture mole hills until they become mountains, and that does not serve anyone well. Rather it feeds the perception, inaccurate as it no doubt often is, of incompetence and a lack of desire to serve the district to the best of the council's ability, a perception that voters can only act upon by changing those they elect, and at the end of the day that is never going to be the whole answer.
One fact that many candidates did not seem to appreciate is that elected members have no control over the staff who are supposed to carry out their orders. That is not a great system, even if it makes more sense than the system prior to 1989, when there was virtually no distinction between governance and management, but a number of candidates struck a very strong chord with audiences when they claimed that the tail was now wagging the dog.
We need to know that our councillors are in charge of governance, and that council staff understand exactly what their role is. Clarification of the boundaries between governance and management is clearly needed, hopefully laying the foundation for a much higher standard of performance.
Mr Carter is also right when he says the community has a role to play, but the ice beneath his feet is significantly thinner there. The debacle that was the reforming of dog control bylaws was not the result of any failing on the part of the community to communicate. The council's failure to notice that a number of its bylaws had lapsed was not the fault of the community. The fact that little if any progress has been made in terms of securing reticulated water supplies, especially Kaitaia's, in the best part of a decade is not the fault of the community. The fact that wastewater has become such a significant issue over a number of years isn't the community's fault either.
The council cannot properly claim in any of those areas that it lacks guidance from its communities. And one small but locally very significant issue at Whatuwhiwhi demonstrates very well that in the past it might have heard but it hasn't listened.
The proposal to lease part of the Perihepe reserve at Whatuwhiwhi to a campground owner was met with a storm of local opposition, which counted for nought. Fair enough. We elect people to make decisions on our behalf, and those decisions should reflect what is best for the community, not always what is most popular. However, in this case a strong, unambiguous local view was disregarded, and as a candidates' meeting at Whatuwhiwhi last month heard, it has not been forgotten.
In that case the bone should probably have been pointed at the community board, but the buck stopped with the district council, which made the final decision to lease the reserve, and it is hardly remarkable that none of those involved in that decision made any effort whatsoever to defend it in the weeks leading up to Saturday's elections, even though one candidate in particular did his best to benefit from it.
To a degree that issue encapsulates one of this council's fundamental failings over the last three years, and even further back than that. It didn't listen to what the people whose views it sought were saying, then, having rejected those views, it made no attempt to explain why. The fact that the reserve was never leased came down to the campground owner having much better hearing than the council — after council ineptitude led to the reserve's occupation.
Mind you, local body elections can take on a random quality. One of Saturday's major victims was Mike Finlayson, one of the hardest-working local politicians the writer has seen in more than 40 years. Having failed, by five votes, to win the Northland Regional Council's Te Hiku seat in 2013, he won it handily in 2016 and lost it on Saturday, to a challenger who in three terms as a district councillor has not publicly distinguished himself in any way.
Perhaps Finlayson paid a price for his support of 1080, but that issue aside, the dedication he showed to representing his constituents deserved a much greater reward than that.
Such are the vagaries of local body elections. What is important now is that those who voted don't go back to sleep for the next three years. We've decided who we want to represent us, and now we must make it very clear that they are being watched, and that we want to see results.