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More questions than answers

Thursday’s press release setting out the South Wairarapa District Councillors’ concerns about the district’s mayor, Martin Connelly, seemed quite impactful. At first glance, at least.

The councillors said they were worried about some of the mayor’s actions and communications. They took a vote of no confidence in him at a closed-door session and then made their reasons public. But now, with LGNZ and others saying the councillors’ vote of no confidence in Connelly is nothing more than symbolic, their move raises many questions.

Why did the councillors take such strong action if it was going have very little actual effect? What did the group want to achieve by publicly chastising the mayor? What good does this formal rap on the knuckles do for the community?

The mayor was elected by the South Wairarapa community and, as such, is the formal head of the council. He was the one, of all the the mayoral candidates, that the community put their trust in at last year’s local body elections.

The councillors fully set out their grievances in a five-page letter, but what purpose will this serve in the longer term?

The community of South Wairarapa have had the largest rates rise in New Zealand for two out of the past three years. In 2021, rates went up a massive 29 per cent. At the time, SWDC said rates were expected to go up by about 17 per cent. The mayor and chief executive subsequently apologised to the community in three separate public meetings across the district.

That decision is now consigned to the history books and the council that endorsed those rate-rise decisions has been replaced by a mostly new set of faces. However, SWDC – like most small councils – currently faces serious practical challenges.

This year, rates went up almost 20 per cent. The reason given for that hike was a late and unexpectedly large bill to fix Martinborough’s wastewater treatment plant. The plant needs urgent repairs, and all new connections have been halted for about two years. This means any new builds not already consented can’t progress until the fix is in place.

Local builders and others are understandably worried about the effect on their businesses and the community. Martinborough residents are worried about the state of their water infrastructure.

At the same time, questions have been raised about how the council managed the recent purchase of a local holiday park. SWDC has refused to disclose how much it paid, but it is understood to have cost the council more than half a million dollars [including upgrade costs], and it was apparently funded by a loan.

SWDC roads are degrading, exacerbated by severe weather. Hinakura Valley residents’ road into Martinborough collapsed more than 15 months ago and has not yet been fixed. Te Awaiti Rd, Ushers Hill, and others are also in disrepair.

At council meeting after council meeting, members of the public have asked questions about rates and council finances. Library opening hours were recently in the spotlight.

It is against this backdrop that this week’s vote of no-confidence in the mayor has taken place. Hopefully, the wellbeing of the South Wairarapa community will be at the forefront of whatever next steps are taken.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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