It is difficult to know who to vote for in local elections. Most people don’t really know what councils do. They’ve never heard half of the names before. They are confused by the council reports and plans. And that’s just the candidates.
So here is a completely self-interested and biased guide to council elections. You’re welcome.
First of all, you are voting for three completely different things: Regional councillors; District Health Board members; and the District Council mayor and councillors. The first two of those cover the whole Bay of Plenty. As we know, people from the Western Bay have the same attitude to east of Te Puke as Aucklanders have to south of the Bombays. They barely know it’s there, and kind of wish it weren’t, so getting more Eastern Bay voices on those two is important.
The tricky thing for district council elections is how to tell which candidates will do the best job. That means, firstly, figuring out which sitting councillors did a good job last time and, secondly, which new councillors might do a good job next time. Unless you spend days sitting through council meetings (and frankly who would do that if they weren’t being paid for it?) it is very hard to answer that.
You can use attendance rates. The Beacon recently published the percentage of full council meetings each WDC councillor attended. It would have been good to see those figures across all the meetings we have to attend, and how many other responsibilities each councillor has put their hand up for, but it was helpful. Of course some people have good reasons for struggling to make meetings over the past year, and it’s partly about what they do when they ARE there. Being in the room is not the same as being present.
Effective councillors need to do more than just turn up. They need to understand the machinery of council: it grinds slow (this is even more important for the mayor). They need to read the reports, ask questions about things they don’t understand or are unsure about, test ideas and recommendations from staff, propose new initiatives, engage with and advocate for a broad community of people, and make good decisions on behalf of the whole district. They need political nous. Some sitting councillors are very good at all this. One or two others are a little more….. well, let’s just say that you don’t want any councillors on stand-by mode.
Media reports of council meetings are useful in trying to understand how different councillors perform. You do have to treat them with caution though. When the media reports on debates in council, the focus is on memorable quotes rather than quality of participation. This is particularly annoying when they put a good quote in someone else’s mouth. And no, I’m not bitter about that article from May 2017.
Candidate meetings are good for evaluating new candidates, and not enough people go to them. You can get the vibe of the contenders, suss their energy, hear their broad vision (if any). It can all get a bit wishful though. I heard one candidate for WDC talking about getting the regional council to pay for something. Asking for money from the regional council is like suggesting boat ramp fees for Whakatāne fishermen. Those two fingers are not a V for Victory sign.
So what do you do? You have to weigh up all the different bits of information available to you and give it your best shot. You have to think what you are looking for in broad terms. The role of a councillor is a governance role, which means big picture thinking. Good councillors have vision and can see what is on the horizon in global, national and local terms. A good council is diverse, with a mix of genders, ethnicities, ages and experiences to inform discussion. Councillors need the ability to work with other people and debate the issues without getting personal or factionalised.
Finally, full respect to everyone who has put their name forward. Joking aside, it takes courage to put yourself up for public office. You won’t always agree with them but councillors are all there to do service for the community. Lord knows you wouldn’t do it for the pay!
(A slightly edited version of this was published in the Whakatāne Beacon 24/9/19)