Blowtorch on Pugh’s record

Brendon McMahon

Labour has challenged National Party candidate Maureen Pugh on her record as Westland mayor, referring to the council’s financial mess.
Deputy leader and finance spokesman David Parker, in Hokitika on Tuesday, raised the issue about the mess inherited by the current council, when Mrs Pugh stepped down from the mayoralty in 2013.
However, Mrs Pugh retaliated yesterday, accusing Mr Parker of “dirty politics”.
Labour was now “sledging across the bottom of the barrel with its dirty politics”, she said.
Mr Parker said the dire finances of the Westland District Council were “a matter of public record”.
Mrs Pugh needed to pass the same test expected of every political candidate or party seeking to represent the public interest, he said.
He said it was mystifying why Mrs Pugh had not yet fronted her mayoral record, given that she was canvassing to be a steward of taxpayers’ money in government.
“Why won’t she talk about it? There’s nothing secret there — she should be willing to talk about her record as mayor.”
The Guardian last month put questions to Mrs Pugh about the level of council debt and the state of the finances, resulting in the highest rate increases in New Zealand last year, but she refused to answer, saying they were “politically motivated” and she would only answer questions that were put equally to all candidates.
“Why does the National candidate not have to answer questions around her record as mayor? It’s absolutely fundamental,” Mr Parker said.
West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O’Connor, who accompanied Mr Parker, said local feedback was that rate increases on the back of the legacy from Mrs Pugh’s tenure at the council helm were really hurting.
Mr Parker cited the $10 million Taramakau Bridge replacement, announced by Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee during the campaign and claimed by Mrs Pugh as her initiative, as a sign that she and her party lacked credibility when it came to spending public money.
The election ‘bribe’ so soon after spending $8 million on fixing the existing bridge, went to “the core” of National’s fiscal credibility.
It also indicated that the party offered nothing real for regional development, Mr Parker said.
Mrs Pugh responded by lashing out at Mr O’Connor, not Mr Parker.
She said it was “no surprise” that as the heat came on the “game” would “get dirty” and Mr O’Connor would bring Mr Parker in to “throw a bit of mud”.
She had no doubt the questions over her mayoralty had been “promoted by the little anti-council ratepayer group in Hokitika that has O’Connor as a supporter”.
In her nine years as mayor, Westland district had acheived the lowest rates per ratepayer on the West Coast every year.
She compared Westland debt with the other West Coast councils, despite the other councils having a different baseline, saying that Westland owed under half that of its neighbours.
“Westland under my term started with $7m of debt and ended up with $15.4m of debt,” Mrs Pugh said.
Claims of millions of dollars “missing” — money borrowed by the council initially to capitalise its companies — was nonsense and “not worth replying to”.
Westland had contended with government imposed requirements across a large district, where 87% of the land was administered by the Department of Conservation.
Her council “never shied away” from investing in water and waste disposal, and each decision was voted by the full council, Mrs Pugh said.
In the same period Westland had won millions of dollars in subsidies and grants for various projects.
“A lot of these improvements were funded by debt, but we still held our debt at the lowest on the Coast.”