Whangarei's mayor Sheryl Mai is rejecting a claim that Whangarei is missing out on growth because the council lacks business experience.
The claim comes from local developer and mayoral candidate David Blackley, who says Whangarei has failed to capitalise on the effect of Auckland growth.
Mr Blackley has never had a high profile in Whangarei but over a long career has developed subdivisions in Mt Maunganui, managed citrus orchards in Kerikeri, farmed two properties near Whangarei, and a few years back bought the old Whangarei port with businessman Craig Heatley.
The pair sold it off again when the council said they could not turn it into a tourism and leisure centre because of zoning rules. Mr Blackley said the council would have required him to do all the work for a plan change - an uncertain process that would have taken three years - and that was the type of attitude holding Whangarei back.
"How can you get progress in a council that is lacking in any business experience? I mean their own councillors are saying that ... the reason we have no development in Whangarei, the reason things are going backwards effectively is because the council has no business nous."
Mr Blackley pointed to the dozens of empty shops in downtown Whangarei and said the city was missing out on the growth other cities were enjoying as Aucklanders left the city in search of more affordable and a different lifestyle.
He has picked a team of like-minded candidates to run for council under the slogan "Go Whangarei" and is promising to hold rates for three years, cut rubbish collection costs and bring in free parking downtown.
The costs would be covered by efficiency savings, and though he ruled out council staff cuts, he said major savings could be made on consultants.
"I think that comes from a group of councillors that don't have much in the way of business experience ... so they are relying heavily on outside consultancy reports that aren't necessarily correct."
Planned projects like a new $20 million water treatment plant could easily be put on hold, he said, as the old plant worked perfectly well.
Present mayor Sheryl Mai said Mr Blackley's promises had a familiar ring. In the 1990s, another business ticket, the Progress Team, won a majority on council. While it froze rates and built high-profile projects like the Town Basin centre, she said, it neglected the boring stuff such as renewing ancient sewerage equipment.
"I'll call it a debacle - because it was. We were having spills into our harbour on a regular basis because we had not been maintaining the less visible assets, under the ground. You can live with that for a while but the day of reckoning came."
That came in the form of the biggest protest march Whangarei had ever seen and council subsequently spending $60m to fix the failing sewerage system.
Ms Mai said Whangarei councils had been playing catch-up ever since and the plan for a new water treatment plant was a case in point.
The plant had reached its use by date and would either cost $13m to upgrade or $20m for a new plant which would save on future maintenance costs.
There would be no saving for ratepayers in deferring the build as Mr Blackey suggested, she said.
She said ratepayers had made it clear they want to keep services but not take on more debt, and her council had increased rates but reduced external debt from $159m to $136m in three years.
The mayor disputed Mr Blackley's claim that Whangarei was missing out on growth and development.
The council had not aggressively pursued growth because it needed to sort out its infrastructure challenges first, but growth had come despite that and Aucklanders were moving north, she said.
Infometrics figures would seem to bear out indications of growth: Whangarei's residential building consents rose 68 percent in the year to June, GDP is up 2 percent, house prices 18 percent, retail trade rose 5.4 percent and the numbers on the unemployment benefit went down 3 percent.
"Subdivisions are going gang-busters in Whangarei at the moment," said Ms Mai. "The development contributions that we charge developers have all of a sudden topped $5m as a revenue stream."
Dave Blackley, for his part, said a lot more would be happening a lot sooner if he and his pro-business team held the reins.
Another of the six candidates is sitting councillor Stu Bell, who is calling for a council that is more open with the public.
Deliberations on the 10-year plan were a case in point. "We did 11 months of planning behind closed doors before we came up with the draft," he said. "Why? Why are we not having the discussion in public early on, when the councillors are making those decisions?"
Mr Bell has been accused of racism for boycotting planning committee meetings after the council appointed a Māori advisor to the committee.
The mayor said the advisor, who is also a qualified environmental planner, had been a valuable addition to the committee and has no voting rights.
But Mr Bell said the council should not be appointing unelected people to elected committees. "I'm not being racist, " he says. "It's just a democratic principle."
If the council genuinely wanted more Māori input into its decision-making it should be working harder on its relationship with Te Karearea, and Te Huinga - the committees set up to liaise with hapū the district, he said.
"I believe it's pretty tokenistic at present. We don't provide them with enough information early enough to allow genuine consultation, and they've told us that."
The other three candidates are Kay Brittenden, Ash Holwell and Matt Keene. All six will be making their pitch at a public meeting at the civic centre, Forum North, next Tuesday.