Leading contenders emerge following New Plymouth mayoral debate

Just how much ratepayers will fork out for the proposed Tūparikino Active Community Hub threatened to overshadow a New Plymouth mayoral debate that ended with two leading candidates a fortnight out from the election closing.

Voters started arriving for the Taranaki Daily News mayoral debate 90 minutes before it started on Friday with a full house inside the Civic Centre’s debating chamber well before it got underway, forcing many people to take in proceedings from the foyer or watch the livestream in one of two council meeting rooms.

The debate proved even more popular online as hundreds tuned in via Stuff’s livestream option as mayor Neil Holdom and first-time candidate and councillor Dinnie Moeahu came out on top in an exit poll.

The debate, typically the end time the candidates will officially “tussle”, was mostly contained affair though councillor Murray Chong was at odds with sitting councillors and the incumbent mayor over claims ratepayers would face a more than 100% rise in their contribution of $40 million towards the community hub.

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Chong, who declared at one point of the debate he was too honest for his own good, accused current councillors who were candidates of not being transparent about the costs because they did not want it to become an election issue.

He alleged they were also not repeating what they had been told at a workshop involving project manager Steve Bramley in March, which included council having to come up with two-thirds of the overall hub cost if they hoped to get central government funding.

Murray Chong's many graphs and tables of council costs and spending didn't always add up.

VANESSA LAURIE/Stuff

Murray Chong’s many graphs and tables of council costs and spending didn’t always add up.

With an expected rise to the overall cost of the hub due to rising building prices, Chong said that meant ratepayers would face paying $90 million for a $120 million project.

Bramley, who was contacted after the debate to check on the claim, said Chong had misinterpreted what had been said at the workshop.

He said it was likely the project team needed 75% of funds before asking for government funding, and the entire Taranaki fundraising group, sporting codes and backers would come up with that, not council alone.

“There are two different things that Murray might have mixed up,” he said.

While he acknowledged there was likely to be an increase in costs, the project’s design team were working on five or six concepts to present to the governance group in October before preferred options were taken to council in November or December along with costings.

Chong received a warm round of applause at the debate following his claims, although that support did not translate to votes taken from the exit poll.

While it had no scientific basis and fewer than half of those who attended in the debating chamber completed the poll, Chong received five of the 68 votes, Holdom landed 30, while Moeahu, who had a large family support group, topped the list with 32.

Second time candidate Greg Mackay received one vote with councillor Sam Bennett and Murray “Muzz” McDowell right to feel a bit hard done-by for not registering a single vote.

Dinnie Moeahu grabbed the audience’s attention through his strong oratory and passion.

VANESSA LAURIE/Stuff

Dinnie Moeahu grabbed the audience’s attention through his strong oratory and passion.

Moeahu and Holdom were undoubtedly two of the more well-supported candidates during the two-hour debate.

Holdom had all the answers at his fingertips while Moeahu spoke like a leader in waiting, promoting inclusiveness and citing his deep connections with iwi as beneficial to the district.

The other pairing of the event was the clear clash between Bennett and Chong with claim and counter-claim over such issues as footpaths and project costs.

Chong also earnt the ire of some sections of the crowd after referencing councillor Anneka Carlson as a “girl” although he qualified it by saying she knew what he meant.

To specifically directed questions from Taranaki Daily News editor Matt Rilkoff, Moeahu said he was against any move to ring-fence the perpetual investment fund which he hoped could be partly used to help people struggling in the community.

“As someone who goes out into the community all the time, I sense the pain points from these sectors of the community,” he said.

“How do we alleviate that pressure and enable them to do better,” he asked.

By taking $50 million out of the PIF.

Holdom admitted to getting a text message from his wife, who was in the audience, advising him to sit up straighter.

VANESSA LAURIE/Stuff

Holdom admitted to getting a text message from his wife, who was in the audience, advising him to sit up straighter.

When asked if he was building a sustainable lifestyle capital for the wealthy, Holdom was quick to his feet and clear with his answer.

“I think the investments we are making are about storing value for future generations,” he said.

“The fact we have to catch up with our infrastructure shows as an organisation we haven’t delivered in the past.”

He went on to say too many councils had “kicked things down the road” and it was time they lifted the quality and longevity of the district’s infrastructure.

Chong took his question, which centred on his suitability to be an appropriate advocate for the district given his divisiveness, to appoint blame at the way the media had treated him.

“I’d like to say the media is half this problem,” he said. “All the accusations have had a twist in the media and people believed it.”

The alleged slanted coverage against him did not include the “21,000 hours” he had volunteered in the community before he was a councillor.

For the third time in a week, Greg Mackay took a copy of the long-term spending plan , which he had requested from the council, to rip up before demanding more be spent on infrastructure projects.

When quizzed if he knew that a number of those projects were actually already in the plan, he said he did, although he had not got all the way into it.

​​​​​​ Sam Bennett tussled with Chong over figures but struggled to make a connection with the audience.

VANESSA LAURIE/Stuff

​​​​​​ Sam Bennett tussled with Chong over figures but struggled to make a connection with the audience.

Bennett, who struggled to make a connection with the audience given his insistence on reading most of his answers, which often missed the question, stressed his desire to bring back “community governance” with a strong focus on district-wide inclusiveness.

“If I am elected I will be a mayor who takes us back to grassroots democracy,” he said.

Murray McDowell, aka Muzz, had tidied up around the council grounds before the debate.

VANESSA LAURIE/Stuff

Murray McDowell, aka Muzz, had tidied up around the council grounds before the debate.

As he has been when afforded an opportunity to speak, McDowell proved popular through his sense of humour, his passion for the region and his dedication to the campaign, which also saw him picking up gin and beer bottles from outside the Civic Centre before the debate.

His humility also included a “shout out” to Holdom’s wife and his admiration for her work, although he admitted had never met her.

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