It was the closest mayoral race in the history of New Zealand - Hamilton 2016.

Just six votes separated city councillors Andrew King and Paula Southgate, with King narrowly ending up mayor of Hamilton.

"It's hard to accept when you lose by such a small margin," said Southgate. "Especially when you know the recount was so close as well."

Three years on, it's time for round two with Southgate once again vying for the top job.

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"After 18 years of experience in local government and all the roles I've held at national level, I think the time is right to step into the mayor's position. And if not, I need to find other ways to add to the community."

The past three years hasn't all been smooth sailing for mayor King. He's faced heavy criticism for using his personal money to put up five giant billboards, well before the allocated three-month campaigning period given to candidates.

When pressed on the matter, King asserts it wasn't illegal or unethical.

"There's nothing wrong with the mayor saying Merry Christmas to people," he said.

"There's nothing wrong with me acknowledging the soldiers who died on Anzac Day and what they gave to build the city. And any of the messages that have been on the billboards have been messages that were a direct message from the council."

"They certainly weren't for electioneer purposes," he claimed.

Southgate disagrees.

"I think it's very clever of him to sneak in some pre-election advertising and that's what it looks like to me.

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"Actually he owns some of those advertising boards, and he has sufficient personal wealth to fund those ads himself, and I understand he did pay for those himself.

"I think he crossed the line when he used the crest of the city on his personal messaging. He should be quite clear when he speaks as mayor - 'this is what I think, and this is the decision of council' and that should never be blurred," she said.

King has some strong incentives for voters, advocating for free transport for all Hamilton residents.

"We've got buses that drive around the city at the moment empty," he said. "Those buses have bus drivers on them, these buses are already there, money spent on the buses.

"All I'm saying is 'let's fill them up'. We've started to do that on Saturdays, Sundays for 18s and unders, that is now free on those buses. I would like to see them expanded out to school holidays and off-peak times as well

"But this is about getting people on the buses we already have. This is not something that at this stage will cost the ratepayer any more, because we're doing it off peak times when the buses don't have anyone on them anyway.

But Southgate has her doubts about the proposal.

"If that works, I'll be happy, but remember there's always someone paying for a service at the end of the day, and that's the ratepayer and those who have to pay to get on the bus," she said.

"You know there's no such thing as a free ride."

Southgate says she and King couldn't be more different.

"Well, our policies are quite different but more important than that, our leadership style is quite different. I think there is room for improvement in the way we act with community, and I think the improvements should be made to the culture of governance in the culture.

"If I'm to become the mayor, I want to build on a stronger team culture at council," she said. "One that is respectful of each other; where diverse views are welcome; where blue sky thinking is welcome and rude or disrespectful comments to colleagues and public are not at all welcome."

Nominations for candidates close on August 16, voting starts on September 20 and the results will be announced in October.

"I think it will be an exciting contest between myself and Paula again," King said. "Once again, we will have to wait and see if someone else rises to be a serious contender as well."

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