Community comes first in Queenstown election


They really are a community-minded bunch.

It proved something of a nightmare trying to pin down your Queenstown councillors for post-election victory interviews on Sunday morning.

“I’m just on my way out the door to Abbeyfield,” says newly-elected Alexa Forbes, “can you call back?”

Abbeyfield is the old folks home out at Frankton – Forbes has been on its committee.

It’s a similar story with re-elected third-termer Mel Gazzard: “Could you call back in five – I’m just at the yacht club putting out some buoys for the racing season.”

New face Merv Aoake’s landline rings out, as does old hand Simon Stamers-Smith’s – both out.

The only one free when Mountain Scene called was Craig ‘Ferg’ Ferguson, one of three new Queenstown ward representatives.

But even the popular DJ and sports nut was playing a rugby invitational when results came in.

If the result suggests anything, it’s the electorate wants stronger community ties and the people heavily into that sector are who they want representing them.

Convention centres, cost-cutting, a recent council restructure and need to upgrade the sewerage system might be the burning issues, but the ones ratepayers are trusting to make decisions on those issues are not people with infrastructure expertise.

Of the newbies, Forbes ran a PR company for years, Ferguson is a radio DJ, Aoake works in the family violence sector. Those re-elected in the dominant Queenstown-Wakatipu ward are lawyer Stamers-Smith, retired school principal Gazzard and ex-journalist Cath Gilmour.

Recently departed council bean counter Angus Welsh was overlooked, as was RHE Mechanical owner Warwick Stalker.

Welsh’s financial expertise could have proved useful with the departure of finance committee chairman John Mann. 

Incumbent councillor Trevor Tattersfield, with an ideal background in roading, lost his seat by a few hundred votes.

Those three and the others who missed out also boast enviable community involvement but their added commercial expertise hasn’t pushed them over the line.

Stalker, who had the highest number of votes of those to miss out with 1329, says: “Trevor and I probably had the background for looking at major infrastructure projects which is the guts of council but neither of us got on.

It’ll sound like sour grapes if I said too much on that, I’m not going to cry in my soup about it but yes there is a lack of expertise in that sort of thing on the council.”

Second-term Queenstown mayor Vanessa van Uden believes the new faces on council will quickly adapt and allay any fears about a lack of expertise.

“I’m sure those guys, Alexa, Ferg and Merv, know it’s not all about the touchy-feeley stuff and community at all costs. Alexa’s run her own business; they understand budgets and spending money like the rest of us. A bit of understanding how council works, in a couple of months, six months, a year, they’ll be running just like the other guys were before.”

Ferguson, who got the second highest number of votes in Queenstown, says: “I understand the enormity of the job and that’s why I put my hand up. The people have spoken which is humbling and now the business starts, it’s down to work. There’s no greater honour than being chosen by your people to represent them.”

A delighted and humbled Forbes puts her business credentials on the table saying she ran her own for 16 years and is an active Chamber of Commerce member.

“Our side of the hill is more community orientated – Ferg, me, Merv. To me that’s a message they want really good community people to represent them.” 

Forbes adds: “I think Wanaka is sending a strong message – there’s some good chunky intellects coming in from over the hill. We’re going to have to bring Queenstown and Wanaka together.”

Aoake says the election was daunting and he has no illusions about the difficulty of the job.

“It’ll be challenging but interesting and a chance to broaden one’s own skill base and find out how the district works at that level.” 

Gazzard says the new faces will have to find their way: “But that shouldn’t take too long. Sometimes people’s background makes a considerable difference to what they can offer, others are fast learners and can get in there and get on with it.

“While it could be perceived there’s gaps in the council make-up, I’d be confident we’ll get a good council out of it. We lost some very good people, but that’s the way it goes.”