by Anne-Marie Emerson
A record voter turnout has given Wanganui District Council a clear message: no H in Wanganui.
Sixty-one per cent of eligible voters had their say in Referendum 09 - the highest voter turnout yet in a Wanganui referendum.
Of 31,200 voting papers sent out, 19,015 were returned to the Wanganui District Council by 5pm Thursday.
The referendum originally asked voters five questions: whether a promotional levy should be imposed on businesses and households, whether Energy Direct should be sold, whether the council's pensioner housing should be sold, whether the visitor information centre should be relocated to Moutoa Quay, and what level of rates increase voters preferred.
A late, sixth question asked voters to choose if they wanted Wanganui's name to be changed to Whanganui, and was added after the New Zealand Geographic Board decided to publicly consult on the spelling of the city's name.
The answer was a resounding "no H".
Seventy-seven per cent of people who voted wanted the city's spelling to remain as Wanganui; 22 per cent preferred Whanganui.
This represents a slight swing towards the Whanganui spelling since 2006 - the last time the H question was put to voters - when 82 per cent of those who voted wanted the H left out and 18 per cent wanted it in.
Ken Mair, spokesperson for Te Runanga o Tupoho - who made the original submission to the New Zealand Geographic Board - said the referendum results were irrelevant.
"It's not about numbers - it's about righting a wrong. "It's about the respect and integrity of our language."
Mr Mair said referenda against minority groups, such as Maori, were always a "crude and blunt instrument".
"This result is proof of that."
Wanganui Mayor Michael Laws, who has consistently argued against the H, said the referendum result was "a fantastic and decisive exercise in democracy".
"I am personally delighted with the results. They are very much in accord with my own sentiments and certainly contradict the claims of various lobby groups and activists.
"Wanganui has spoken - we have a responsibility to ensure that our collective voice is heard."
The result of the H question will form part of the council's submission to the New Zealand Geographic Board during the public consultation.
The board's final decision will be made later this year. Clearly, the H question prompted the high voter turnout: only 44 voting papers were returned with the H question left blank, while up to 500 papers were left blank on other questions.
Voters answered with a definite no to the promotional levy, the sale of both Energy Direct and the pensioner housing, while the relocation of the visitor information centre returned a more positive response.
Voters also indicated they want a low rates increase, with a clear preference for the lowest option of 3 per cent.
The results of these five questions will be considered for inclusion in the council's 10-Year Plan.
by Anne-Marie Emerson