South Waikato’s mayoral candidates Gary Petley and Arama Ngapo pictured in Putāruru. Photos / Danielle Zollickhofer
As Local Government New Zealand pushes for more diverse representation on elected councils, the South Waikato District Council is already one step ahead.
No matter who wins the mayoral election in October, the district will have its first Māori mayor. There are only two mayoral candidates, Arama Ngapo, 49, and Gary Petley, 67, and both are of Māori descent.
Despite this, neither wants to make a big deal out of it, saying it is more about their competencies than their Māori heritage.
Ngapo says: “I am not standing to break some glass ceiling, I’m standing because I think I can do the job.”
Petley says: “Me being Māori wasn’t the driving force behind me standing… it is more about what I bring to the table.”
However, the fact that South Waikato, a district where 38.6 per cent of the population are of Māori descent and 12.8 per cent identify as being of Pacific Island ethnicity, will have a Māori mayor is still quite significant.
“It’s huge”, Petley says.
“It just shows how far the South Waikato has come,” says Ngapo.
Ngapo, a Tokoroa local and mum of three, is of Ngāti Tamaterā, Ngāti Maru, Ngāti Pūkenga and Ngāti Paoa descent.
She has been a Tokoroa Ward councillor for the past six years while managing her law firm NL Lawyers – Barristers and Solicitors. She is only standing for the mayoralty.
Among other governance roles, including being a member of various council committees, she has been chairing the council’s corporate and regulatory committee and was appointed to the local government Resource Management Act steering group that will advise Government on the reforms.
Ngapo says: “Experience does matter and I believe I have both the leadership skills and experience to lead our council.
“I am a passionate and proud advocate for… our beautiful communities. I want to move South Waikato forward.”
Petley, a Putāruru local, is of Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Mutunga descent.
He has been serving as a Putāruru Ward councillor for the past three years while working as a tanker driver for Fonterra. Apart from the mayoral position he is standing again for his current ward.
Petley is involved in local community groups and sports clubs and has previously lived in Tokoroa. He used to own the Tīrau liquor store with his wife Aria and has been a member of a few council committees, including the Finance, Audit and Risk Committee.
“I was encouraged to stand after our current mayor [Jenny Shattock] announced she is retiring. Jenny got in unopposed last time, so there was a feeling that there needs to be an election this time,” Petley says.
“With me, what you see is what you get. I’m community driven and district focused.”
In recent years, South Waikato has flipped the switch and is now on the rise – and not only in terms of its population. Big businesses, including the OFI factory, the South Waikato Trades Training Centre, Putāruru Country Estate retirement village and the Better Eggs free-range forest farm, are settling in the district.
However, some towns, including Putāruru, are still struggling with empty shops and neglected buildings.
Ngapo says she wants to elevate the district by putting the community first and restoring the community’s pride.
“Where is that pride? South Waikato is the heart of New Zealand! I want to focus on growing our community and creating a district that people are proud of.”
Petley says South Waikato needed to “get away from the welfare existence”.
“We need to build business confidence and create jobs because we lose [young people] to the big cities of Hamilton, Tauranga and Rotorua. The only thing that stimulates growth is jobs.”
Upcoming rapid reforms from central government, including the Resource Management Act and Three Waters, are also topics the new mayor will need to address.
Ngapo says: “We need to insist on local voice. I want to make sure that we have [one] on a local and national level.
“I was 22 when I became a lawyer. I’m used to being in uncomfortable positions where my mere presence challenges the status quo. I encourage us to lean into uncomfortable situations that challenge us to get the best outcomes for our communities.”
Petley says, especially regarding Three Waters, that he doesn’t think South Waikato has the same issues that other councils have.
“It’s a good thing being part of [local government action group] Communities for Local Democracy to have a voice at that level. We gotta keep pushing.”