Queenstown’s ballot box issues

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Departing councillors Scott Stevens and Alexa Forbes talk to Daisy Hudson about what will be on voters’ minds in the October election and how that might influence council business

Ask most locals and they’ll point to Queenstown’s airport as the biggest hot-button issue in town.

That, and the wider issue of growth, is shaping up to be the key decider as Queenstowners vote for local council candidates in October’s elections, outgoing councillors Scott Stevens and Alexa Forbes say.

But how will candidates potentially elected on an anti-airport, anti-growth ticket – or on any single issue – fare once they’re round the council table, faced with difficulties of sound governance?

Arrowtown ward councillor Stevens, who’s decided not to seek a third term, warns that councillors who refuse to compromise may struggle.

“Some councillors got elected on saying ‘no more housing’, and they got elected and suddenly realised they were in a pretty tricky situation,” Stevens says. “If they didn’t approve anything, potentially something worse was going to happen.

“Candidates who declare they’re not going to do such a thing, and then get into council, and then see the evidence, and they’ve got their populist position despite the evidence and they’re trying to stick to it, they’re really going to struggle to be effective.”

He acknowledges that vigorous debate is part and parcel of council, but people also need to have open minds and take evidence into consideration.

Otherwise, he says, “we could be in big trouble”.

“You see that in dysfunctional councils in, I’m going to say it, Dunedin. You just have councillors on there who, just to spite their council colleagues, will oppose stuff.”

He points to the recent vote to declare a climate change emergency, which he opposed, as an example of compromise.

“I acknowledge there is a climate change issue and we need to take action but I didn’t agree with the emergency call, and likewise there were three other councillors who didn’t, but that decision was made, and I’m now obliged to uphold and accept it.

“If you get people who go ‘I didn’t get my way, I didn’t vote for that, and I’m going to continually beat up on that point’, that’s poor governance and a dysfunctional council.”

He says the airport is seen, “rightly or wrongly, as the pinch-point for tourism growth”, and the council’s ability to influence the direction of the airport will be a big election issue.

Its statement of intent was blasted when it was tabled at a recent council meeting, and was only narrowly received with a 6-5 vote in favour.

Just two days ago, mayor Jim Boult released a scathing response to a letter from a Wanaka community group to Minister for Regional Economic Development Shane Jones concerned about airport growth.

“I guess quite a lot of the debate happens around the council table, because some councillors want us to be more aggressively involved in the decision making of that CCO [council-controlled organisation],” Stevens says.

“Whereas others, and I could potentially be one of them, feel that we’ve got to kind of acknowledge and respect that CCO relationship. We’ve got to be careful about how much we step into their affairs, but that doesn’t mean we can’t influence them at board level.”

The ultimate move would be to sack the board, he says, but he doesn’t believe they’re nearing that point yet.

“I’m of the opinion that we have a good working relationship with the board. That isn’t a unanimous decision, I think there are councillors around the table who don’t think we have a good enough relationship with the airport.”

Fellow councillor Alexa Forbes, who’ll also depart in October and is eyeing up a seat on the Otago Regional Council, agrees the airport will be a key issue.

“People are feeling the downsides of growth and tourism, and they’re not seeing enough benefits of tourism, and they’re finding it hard to live here.

“It’s really a discussion about how we deal with growth, and the power of that argument will, sadly, because we’re so short-term in our thinking, all of us, be louder if our tourism numbers don’t drop, or it will be a quieter argument if they do.”

She says she’s seen the council become more collaborative and less reactive during her two terms.

But with the size of the community roughly doubling every 15 years, she says there’s huge pressure to sort out infrastructure.

“All of those infrastructure and planning issues could end up being fronted by an argument around the airport.”

She also says councillors who take a strong position on something before getting elected may come up against some road-blocks.

“I’m always suspicious when someone comes in and says they’re going to do this, that, or the other, or stop this, that, or the other.

“It’s like ‘yip, with which tool?”‘

daisy.hudson@scene.co.nz