Kaipara Mayor Craig Jepson was unrepentant in the face of a 6000-signature petition calling for his resignation and a 300-person strong hīkoi through the streets of Dargaville.
He said Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon and Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta should keep out of the Kaipara District Council (KDC) situation and let the community sort it out themselves.
Jepson’s comments came after the biggest local government protest hīkoi in Dargaville on Wednesday since the first mayor was elected more than a century ago in 1908.
People from all over Northland gathered to protest the mayor’s controversial karakia ban at the November 30 council meeting in Mangawhai.
They peacefully marched from the centre of town to the Northern Wairoa War Memorial Hall on Hokianga Rd, where the newly elected Kaipara District Council was meeting.
Jepson’s position came in spite of fighting words from the hīkoi, whose participants broke into karakia, oratory and waiata throughout the protest. Many of them later watched the live stream of the council meeting from inside the hall but outside the council chambers.
Jepson stood outside the hall, flanked by his councillors and KDC interim chief executive Jason Marris, to meet the hīkoi but he did not speak.
The mayor said afterwards he acknowledged the participants exercising their democratic right to express their views.
He said these were the view of some in the community. There were many others in the community who had different views.
Paturiri Toautu, who contested KDC’s new Te Moananui o Kaipara Māori Ward, organised the hīkoi in the wake of the karakia ban which has become a flashpoint for the local community and wider New Zealand society.
Jepson said the council decided on Wednesday last week that karakia could be among the options individual councillors, on a rotational basis, might choose to use prior to the start of a council meeting.
That would be how things stayed. Karakia would not be a formally-included feature at the start of every meeting going forward - in contrast with longstanding council tradition.
Councillor Ash Nayaar, who is of Indian descent, opened Wednesday’s council meeting with a karakia.
Jepson created a national furore when he stopped efforts by Māori ward councillor Pera Paniora to start the Mangawhai meeting with a karakia.
In response, Meng Foon called on Jepson to reconsider his position.
Mahuta commented that everybody makes mistakes and that his position was a mistake.
Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whātua co-chairperson Dame Naida Glavish addressed Wednesday’s hīkoi outside the council meeting venue.
She slated the mayor’s position on the karakia as racist.
Jepson later took issue with her racism claims.
“She knows nothing of my 65 years and how I have interacted with all sorts of people,” he said.
Glavish promised Māori would no longer allow anyone to “do what they like” with tikanga (Māori customs).
“How dare someone who was voted in for three miserable years do what they like with tikanga without a conversation first?” she said.
“No way are we going to take that sort of behaviour. No way, it’s over.”
Glavish was among the kuia and kaumātua to address the council meeting.
“We will not tolerate ignorance, arrogance or racism,” she told Jepson and the councillors present.
Glavish said the events of the last few weeks had undone the good relationships of the previous council.
Former Kaipara mayor Dr Jason Smith said while the council had experienced many “sad days” before, Wednesday was the “saddest of the sad”.
At Wednesday’s council meeting, petition spokesperson Chris Huriwai claimed a lot of racism was being smuggled into the council in the guise of its karakia compromise. This has seen karakia become part of an optional pre-meeting approach that can also include a prayer or elected representative’s reflection.
The karakia was one tiny part of what should also include other aspects of tikanga at the start of the meeting, Huriwai said.
“We have had so much taken away from us.”
Te Kahu o Taonui (Northland Iwi Chairs Forum) chair Harry Burkhardt, who represented the 12 iwi in the region, told the meeting the council’s relationship with iwi had many benefits, including economic. The relationship to date had been an important part of a significant proportion of Government then Provincial Growth Fund money coming to Kaipara.
He said it was important the gains achieved in council relationships with Māori could proceed.
There was nothing wrong with admitting a mistake and moving on, Burkhardt said.
During last month’s Mangawhai meeting, Jepson also contentiously attempted to dismantle the KDC’s co-governance arrangement for an iconic Dargaville landmark - splitting the single council Pou Tu o Te Rangi Harding Park joint governance committee into two separate committees.
The park sits high above Dargaville city and is the site of key community assets including the Lighthouse function centre and Dargaville Museum.
His attempt at the Mangawhai meeting ended with the matter lying on the table until the February council meeting. This allowed consultation to be undertaken with Te Uri o Hau, which has the Pou Tu o Te Rangi pa site in the park as part of its Waitangi Treaty allocation and in conjunction with the Harding family, who have a long association with the park.
The family gifted the land originally for a hospital but later to the community in 1899.
Councillors at the meeting voted for this outcome with Jepson voting against doing so.
Te Uri o Hau representative Reno Skipper told the council meeting the uncoupling without consultation was undemocratic.
Meanwhile, Te Roroa spokesperson Thomas Hohaia used the words of New Zealand’s God of Nations to represent his concern about the KDC situation at the meeting.
“God defend our free land,” he said.
He said Jepson’s approach had already split the community, at a time when so much had been achieved.
Jepson said the KDC already had a number of ways it worked with Māori, which were still in place.
■ Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air