A Bay of Plenty regional councillor and school principal killed outside a Whakatane pub early yesterday is believed to have been king-hit by a stranger.

Hawea Vercoe, 36, of nearby Rotoiti, was in Whakatane with his children to see his parents.

He went out to support local singer Maisey Rika at a concert, then told his mum and dad he was going for a few drinks with friends in town.

That was to be the last time they would see their son alive.

Mr Vercoe, a father of six, was principal of Te Kura Kaupapa o Te Rotoiti, a Maori seat councillor on Environment Bay of Plenty and a member of the Rotorua District Council's Te Arawa standing committee.

Detective Senior Sergeant Greg Standen of Whakatane said Mr Vercoe, a candidate for the Destiny Church's political party for the Waiariki seat in 2005, was punched to the ground outside The Quart House in the town's centre about 2.30am.

Quart House owner Grant Webb said the attack appeared to be completely unprovoked.

"[Mr Vercoe] carried on walking to the pedestrian crossing and this fella had just taken offence to something and just king-hit him and he just ended up dying out there.

"It wasn't a drunken brawl or anything like that. It just came completely out of the blue. No one had a chance to react. It just shocked everybody."

Whanau spokesman and Ngati Awa leader Pouroto Ngaropo said the family were "just absolutely devastated".

"They're in pain, despair and agony ... just all the worst emotions you could imagine.

"He went out with some friends to have a few drinks but he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Mr Ngaropo said Mr Vercoe moved comfortably between his two iwi, Ngati Awa and Te Arawa.

His loss was already being felt and would continue to be for years.

"Ngati Awa are in mourning," Mr Ngaropo said. "We had absolute faith that in time he would have been one of our leaders."

Mr Vercoe had been under strain in recent times. He had been charged with threatening to cause grievous bodily harm to his former wife's new partner but this was reduced to using threatening behaviour.

He controversially returned to his role as principal after he was ordered in the Rotorua District Court to pay $400 towards prosecution costs.

Te Arawa kaumatua Toby Curtis said he had been working with Mr Vercoe to help him move forward.

He, too, said Mr Vercoe had been earmarked as a leader from a young age and had turned around the fortunes of the Rotoiti kura.

In his first year as head, the roll had almost tripled to 96 students.

Mr Vercoe later caused controversy - which went all the way to a parliamentary committee hearing - by using the word "kura" on the school's bus as he pushed for the use of bilingual road signs.

Said Mr Curtis: "Through his commitment and passion for language he not only brought about change for traffic rules for school buses but he also changed the thinking amongst Maori people and indeed bureaucrats around the country.

"He was indeed a person who gave not only insight but a structure and confidence to achieve what many people had not thought possible."

Mr Vercoe's tangi will be held at Tuteao Marae in Te Teko.

A 22-year-old Opotiki man charged with his murder will appear in Whakatane District Court today.