Councillor Charles Sturt might look like a shadow of his former self but he was more than prepared to take on another Rotorua Lakes Council election challenge. But something recently changed and the highly experienced councillor who has served the city for more than three decades has done a u-turn on his decision. Come October, he will close the agendas for the final time. In announcing his decision publicly today, he speaks exclusively to Kelly Makiha about the real reason he's stepping down as well as disclosing who's new blood he'd like to see fill his shoes.
"I will never be cured. I am terminal."
Charles Sturt isn't being dramatic, nor is he seeking attention.
In fact, ask him if that pesky cancer is the reason he's bowing out of local body politics after three decades and he quickly replies "no".
But sitting at his kitchen table that's strewn with Rotorua Lakes Council papers, the 63-year-old pauses and thinks a little . . .
"Well it's got to be part of it I suppose."
It's been 30 years this year since Sturt was elected as a district councillor, having started his political career a few years earlier on the Ngongotahā County Borough Council.
Up until last month, Sturt was adamant he would go another election. But something changed this week.
"I got home from my surgery on my spine and I thought 'what am I going to achieve in the next three years?' Everything I had planned has been finished or is already in the Long-term Plan and is budgeted for."
Sturt said he got in on the council as a young man in his early 30s and he was leaving on a high note.
"The only thing I would have liked to have seen achieved is debt reduction but they will do that at the next rates review and I've said to the mayor [Steve Chadwick] I will be there to help you. The knowledge I have got on rates is huge, it takes you six years to work it out."
Sturt said he would continue working in partnership with his wife of 40 years, Denise, at Professionals McDowell Real Estate but it was time to bow out of council duties.
"My family are all telling me I'm doing the right thing."
Since February the family, including their three children, have watched Sturt put up the fight of his life since being diagnosed with cancer.
"They gave me three months to live if I didn't have treatment and I decided to fight. I have had the best treatment and I'm alive."
Despite being given a clean bill of health and revealing his cancer battle publicly through the Rotorua Daily Post in October last year, more small tumours and lesions have since appeared.
There is an active tumour on his right hip and about six weeks ago his specialists noticed there were more "rampant" cancer lesions on his spine.
Sturt's medication has increased and three weeks ago he had surgery to fuse six vertebrae together to protect his spinal cord.
"I will never be cured. I am terminal. But friends of mine with this cancer have lived eight to 15 years. It could be 12 months, it could be 15 years but they are treating me to give me the best quality of life and as much pain eradication as possible."
So that's why cancer isn't taking any honour as being his single reason for stepping aside.
"I have given 33 years of the best years of my life serving this community and I want to enjoy seeing someone of the same age as I was do the same."
So who does he want to see fill his shoes?
Sturt said he was endorsing two new councillors to hopefully fill his position and that of
fellow departing councillor Karen Hunt. They are Mercia-Dawn Yates and Ryan Gray (who has indicated he is standing but is yet to put in a formal nomination).
"I want younger people with younger ideas and I've worked with both of them on different projects and I think they will be great."
He was also hoping long-time colleague and friend Chadwick would be re-elected as mayor as he described her as the best mayor he had worked under in three decades.
"The thought of anyone else other than Stevie being mayor is just unbearable to think."
Mayor Steve Chadwick reflects on political years with Sturt
Chadwick said she and Sturt went back a long way, being West Ward councillors together in the 1990s.
"He never lost the love of his village, Ngongotahā. You can't take that out of the boy. I remember us both trying to get a youth centre in the village and leaving that to him with his connections to Andy Burnett, the then 'mayor' of Ngongotaha.
"We attended meetings together in the Mamaku village, Pikiao club rooms, the bowling club and the Ngongotahā and Rotomā halls.
"He then supported me when I became the MP for Rotorua and helped with fundraising auctions and debates. Charles is loyal and passionate about the people he values and represents.
"We used to laugh that he stood for many political parties before settling on his true black and white colours [New Zealand First]. Over the years we have had our differences, but I so respect his advocacy on issues that make a difference in people's lives."
Chadwick said Sturt came into his stride when he took on the portfolio of outdoor spaces for the council and she always described him as her "Minister of Sports and Recreation".
"Golly he worked hard. We opened tournaments in the middle of winter on league and touch grounds. He fought for the upgrade to the netball courts and tried to get a baseball diamond pitch established in Rotorua.
"He achieved the undertaking to complete a skateboard park a year earlier than was in the long term plan. He knew every personality in every code.
"I just couldn't take his shouting and barracking at rugby games but he was fun to sit beside."
As a politician she described him as a "wily fox" who knew "every trick in the book".
"He has an abiding sense of justice and stood bravely against allegations that were incorrectly fired. I felt that he was the terrier politician who snipped at the ankles of detractors."
Chadwick said she knew Sturt would keep a watching eye on the next generation of politicians.
"He did that with me and I love him for just that as will others. Thirty years of public life is a remarkable contribution. Thank you Charles and Denise who walks beside him."
Sturt's fondest memories
* Being on the working party of the Energy Events Centre which only cost ratepayers $4 million out of the $28 million budget.
* Supporting the development of the Te Arawa partnership in 2015 which saw Te Arawa "treated as equals for the first time".
* Carrying Don Stafford's casket into Tamatekapua Meeting House in 2010 as a friend and council representative.
* The investiture of Sir Howard Morrison at Tamatekapua Meeting House in 1990 and in 2009 mourning his remarkable life in the same place at Te Papaiouru Marae.
* Being part of a council that "recognised Ngongotahā existed" and helping to redevelop the village and the shopping centre.
* Getting lights for the Rotorua International Stadium.
Sturt's worst council moments
* Suffering personal abuse and attacks after supporting the Te Arawa partnership in 2015.
* Having family members and his children verbally abused and attacked after he voted in controversial ways on the council.
* Having Air New Zealand not back the council's bid to have transtasman flights after it had spent $63 million to get the flights. Also being part of a council that allowed $1 million to be given to Air New Zealand each year to support the flights.
* Being on the council that suffered the failure of the Mudtopia festival.
Charles Sturt facts
* Age 63
* Married to Denise
* Three children, Elizabeth, William and Cameron
* Four grandchildren
* Real estate agent with Denise at Professionals McDowell Real Estate
* Ngongotahā County Borough Council member 1982/83
* District councillor from 1989-96, then 1996 to today (when Denise nearly died giving birth to Cameron he resigned, forcing a byelection which was won by Steve Chadwick).
* Survived prostate cancer in 2013
* Former race horse breeder/owner
* Former owner of Dianne Dairy and Koolens Bakehouse