Tania Tapsell has entered the race for the Rotorua mayoralty with a promise to focus on stopping "the spend".
Among the three-term Rotorua district councillor’s “belt-tightening” targets are major renovations of the Rotorua Museum and Aquatic Centre.
Tapsell, 29, was the highest polling councillor candidate in the 2019 local election, attracting almost 1000 more votes than re-elected mayor Steve Chadwick, who plans to step down at the end of this term.
If elected, Tapsell will be the first Māori woman elected as mayor of Rotorua and likely the youngest, at 30 years and 16 days on October 8.
She joins three other declared mayoralty candidates – fellow councillors Raj Kumar and Reynold Macpherson and former NZ First deputy leader Fletcher Tabuteau.
Speaking exclusively to Local Democracy Reporting, Tapsell says, in her view, Rotorua’s mayor should be “connected with all parts of the community” and provide a positive way forward.
She says her priority as mayor will be to “stop the spend”.
“There have been a number of decisions over the years where I’ve voted against, whether it was … Mudtopia … or when $1 million dropped out of nowhere for the QE Health grant.
“I believe that [council] spending recently hasn’t reflected the priorities of the community and we need to stop and reprioritise to what is now needed in these new challenging times.”
She says there are big expenditure items – such as the Rotorua Museum and Aquatic Centre – on the horizon.
The council has so far committed $15 million to the $51.1m museum restoration. The Aquatic Centre renovation had a budgeted cost of $28.3m, of which the council was contributing $17.9m.
“Given the challenges, it’s prudent to stop and reset and potentially tighten our belt, like the rest of Rotorua’s families are having to do now.”
She also wants to “restore” Rotorua’s reputation as a “great place to live, visit and invest”.
Tapsell says emergency housing – and some negative social impacts as a result of it – haved been “hugely damaging” to Rotorua’s reputation and the issues needed to be resolved “as quickly as possible” to regain Rotorua’s reputation as a top tourism destination.
Tapsell ran unsuccessfully in the 2020 general election as the National Party candidate for East Coast, losing to Labour’s Kiritapu Allan.
Considered by some political commentators as a rising star of the party, Tapsell’s name was mentioned several times in relation to the National Party candidacy in the Tauranga by-election, following Simon Bridges’ surprise resignation.
Tapsell says she's “humbled so many people wanted to see me in Parliament” but she's “committed to Rotorua”.
“I’ve known for some time now that I wanted to stand for mayor but I’ve waited to announce because I’ve also been focused on just doing my job well as a councillor, with the significant issues that our community’s facing.”
Local Democracy Reporting asked if she will leave local government if a significant opportunity in national politics arose.
She says: “No. All I’ve ever wanted to do is to serve my community well and to use the skills that I have in the best way possible to do that.
“There’s no doubt Rotorua needs strong leadership. I’ve dedicated the last nine years of my life to serving Rotorua and I will happily continue to do that as mayor.”
Tapsell also wants the council to be more transparent.
“There have been a lot of decisions made in confidential that I believe should have been held in public.
“I want our community to be able to understand why we are making decisions and hear those conversations.”
She says as mayor she will open elected member workshops to the public “where possible”.
Tapsell says she respects and acknowledges the many years of service Chadwick has given the district.
“I have often disagreed with her, but I respect that she's doing her best.”
Tapsell says she will be focused on delivering core services.
She's concerned the Government has reintroduced the four well-beings – social, economic, environmental and cultural – into local government legislation without providing the necessary funding to deliver services in those areas.
“We only have limited resources and it’s not fair for ratepayers to be expected to continue spending on areas that should be paid for and supported by the government.”
The Labour government reintroduced the four well-beings into the Local Government Act in 2019 after the previous National government removed it. Their inclusion requires councils to consider them in decision-making.
Tapsell was first elected to the council in 2013. She lives in Fairy Springs with her husband Kanin and 10-year-old step-son Kaiarahi.
Tapsell’s great uncle Sir Peter Tapsell was an Eastern Māori MP and first Māori Speaker of the NZ House of Representatives.
Lower Hutt mayor Campbell Barry was the youngest elected mayor in New Zealand when he won the 2019 election, aged 28.
Fellow Rotorua mayoral hopefuls Kumar and Tabuteau declared their candidacies in July, at the same time Chadwick confirmed she would be hanging up the mayoral chains after three terms.
Macpherson announced his candidacy in December, alongside four other Rotorua Residents and Ratepayers councillor candidates for the Rotorua Lakes District Council, and one for the Bay of Plenty Regional Council.
* A previous version of this story quoted Tapsell as saying she would be the first Māori mayor of Rotorua. This is incorrect as Harry Dansey, elected Rotorua mayor in 1941, was a member of the Māori (Pioneer) Battalion on the Western Front in World War I.
-Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air