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With local body elections and several issues and opportunities facing the Waitaki district, 2019 is going to be a big year for Gary Kircher. Rebecca Ryan chats to the Waitaki Mayor about the year ahead.

Q How did you spend your summer break?

Kerry and I spent a few days in Wanaka, taking a break and celebrating our wedding anniversary. It’s become our annual thing to go to Wanaka and do the Gibbston Valley Winery Summer Concert – it’s good fun.

Q What were your highlights of 2018?

There have been a few projects we’ve been able to tick off, or almost tick off. Things like the courthouse, the water wheel, Craig Fountain and small, but important to that community, was the Palmerston clock. I feel like we’ve turned a corner with our road maintenance issues, we’re seeing some improvement there, but we’ve still got a long way to go. The continuation of Alps 2 Ocean and getting that off road – there was some good progress made in 2018 and in 2019 we’ll see more of that, including the expectation that Sailors Cutting to Otematata will be off-road. That’s going to be very significant.

Q So, 2019 – what are your goals for this year?

It’s definitely going to be another busy year. As election years can be, it’ll be slightly compressed because the focus will be on getting things done before the election instead of before Christmas. There are the ongoing things we’re dealing with and working on like the Oamaru Harbour master plan, the district plan review, town plans for Otematata and Omarama and getting the museum and the Forrester Gallery reopened. Then there are the opportunities we’re working on like the Waitaki Whitestone Geopark. We’ve also got got the ongoing development of the Observatory Retirement Village – we’re just finishing off the last 20 of the 80 rest-home care beds and we’re doing the second stage of the apartments at the moment.

Q What are the big challenges ahead?

The community is increasingly aware of the problems being caused by gangs and their parasitic behaviour. It’s not about the individuals – it’s about the problems they bring with them and the problems they create. We can’t allow that to carry on so we have to, and we will, deal with them.

Q How do you do that?

We’re working on initiatives and we need the community to get on board with them. It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a village to get rid of its parasites. There has been quite an invasion of southern South Island by gangs and problems are occurring in quite a few communities throughout Otago and Southland – so we’re not alone. The message is: we don’t want them in Waitaki. We want people who want to come here and be part of the community, who add to our community, not those who just want to take. We’re hoping to be a bit more public soon in what approach we’re going to take to get the problem sorted.

Q What have you learned in your two terms as mayor and why are you seeking a third term?

Because I was a councillor for nine years and deputy mayor for three, I had a good understanding of what to expect. I think they key is knowing that you’re not going to foresee everything. If problems come up, it’s about dealing with them, and if they’re opportunities, taking advantage of them. I think, generally speaking, the district is heading in a good direction. I often find myself saying ‘you can always do better’ and I do live by that, but equally it’s really important to acknowledge there’s a lot we have done as a community. If we go back to 2001, I stood for council then because I thought I had something to offer. I wanted to be involved in improving things for the community – and that hasn’t changed. Being mayor gives me more opportunity to do that. Sometimes it’s really frustrating because you can’t just click your fingers and sort out problems, bureaucracy and processes don’t allow that to happen quite as easily as I might like, or people might think, but in this position you do have the ability to change situations and I take a lot of pleasure in seeing things improve.

Q Why should more young people consider getting involved in local government?

For us, I’m the third-youngest around the council table and I’m too old (55) to be the third-youngest. But it’s not just about age, it’s good to have a mix of representation – it’s about those who have had families, but also those who have kids at home and are dealing with teenagers or primary school kids, it’s about people who have good common sense, have good life experience and the ability to think. With the election this year, there will be opportunities and it’d be great to see more people put their hand up, whether for community boards, council or mayor. The best thing for Waitaki is for voters to have good choices.

Q You are very active on social media. How has it changed the way your communicate?

I had a blog for a while, then social media came through and it’s a better medium for me. It makes it very easy to engage directly with the people, to get feedback, but also to see what people are thinking and let people know what I’m thinking, what council’s thinking and what council’s doing. It’s an opportunity to correct misconceptions and to engage with people and get some good, solid facts into the discussion.