Racism decides Gisborne mayoralty - Councillor

By Contributor

by Matthew Rosenberg, Local Democracy Reporter

A Gisborne councillor has called into question the mayor's ability to lead the region forward, saying her background makes it hard to understand issues affecting Māori.

Third-term councillor Meredith Akuhata-Brown made the comments about Mayor Rehette Stoltz following questions about her intention to stand for the top position at the next election.

Cr Akuhata-Brown, who unsuccessfully contested the mayoralty in 2019, said she was unsure if she would run against Mayor Stoltz in local body elections in October. Part of the reason was she felt her chances were impacted by not fitting the stereotype of what power looked like.

“When Rehette first ran for council, she was elected duly based on ‘that's what councils look like across the nation',” Cr Akuhata-Brown said. “She's the deputy mayor within a couple of terms … she's formidable … she's young. There's no fight for the position. It's handed to her.

First elected to council in 2010, then-Cr Stoltz was appointed deputy mayor by Mayor Meng Foon in 2013.

When Mayor Foon left his position to become the Race Relations Commissioner in 2019, she was made mayor in the interim.

She cruised to mayoral victory in local body elections later that year with 10,589 votes, ahead of second-placed Akuhata-Brown (3845).

Cr Akuhata-Brown believes the Mayor had an easy run because she fit the bill of what people were used to in the make-up of councils around the country.

“We go through an election campaign when the position has already been filled.”

On her website, South African-born Stoltz shares her journey to the top elected position at Gisborne District Council.

Arriving in New Zealand in 2001 for her OE, she took a “holiday job” as the laboratory manager for a wine business before deciding to commit to Tairāwhiti long term with partner Deon.

After a conversation with former councillor Kathy Sheldrake in 2009, she decided to run for council the following year. Her background is in cardiovascular physiology and she also ran a recruitment business.

Cr Akuhata-Brown argues Stoltz was handed the chains without much debate among councillors when Mayor Foon left prematurely.

“It's really easy for people from overseas. They come to our place highly qualified, and they are looked upon favourably, and they get position without fighting for it.

“If you are a certain look, that is particularly not Māori, you are highly probable to get that position.”

Cr Akuhata-Brown said she was being a “vocal local” because she was invested in the region and wanted to highlight the issues that came with integrating governance styles from overseas.

Tairāwhiti was still fraught with racial inequalities and relationships were key for connecting with those who were still trying to eke out a living in the middle and lower classes, she said.

“Those who have money and wealth and governance roles, they can just get on with their lives and not be bothered by any of that because they can just put up higher fences.

No voice for Māori and Pasifika

“For Māori and Pasifika, the voice hasn't been there for centuries.”

Cr Akuhata-Brown's final criticism of Mayor Stoltz's leadership was she had been left alone with no extra jobs and it felt like there were low expectations.

Hoping to be made a committee chair in her third term, Cr Akuhata-Brown said positions had instead gone to people who supported the Mayor 100 percent.

“There's a real sense that to get position and acknowledgement, you have to be very much on side.

“We don't even talk. It's just a non-relationship.”

Mayor Stoltz responded to the criticisms, saying Gisborne had been home for 21 years and she had made a concerted effort to get a deeper understanding of the multicultural community.

That included completing a year-long Tikanga Māori course and becoming a member of the council's waiata group.

Under her leadership, Māori wards had been unanimously voted in and memorandums of understanding signed with hapū.

“I have good working relationships with our iwi leaders and regularly meet to discuss and make decisions in regard to issues that are important to us as a region.”

Appointment to committees and chair positions were made on interest expressed by councillors, experience and merit, she said.

“I won the mayoralty with more than a 7000-vote majority.

“Mayoralties are not handed down. They are voted on by the community.”

The upcoming local election is set for October 8.

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air