The mayor who built a $1.3m rock wall, and says it saved town three times

A defiant outgoing West Coast mayor has defended two of his more controversial projects.

In fact, they are the two he is most proud of, he says.

Westland mayor Bruce Smith, who is taking a break from politics after a near-death ordeal, chaired his final council meeting on Thursday.

In his two terms as mayor, one of his two highlights was building the stopbank now dubbed Havill Wall.

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Smith, and former councilor Durham Havill, came under fire from the auditor-general in 2017 for building the $1.3 million rock wall in Franz Josef’s Waiho River without consulting experts, council staff or councillors.

Smith said “without question” the Havill Wall had saved the town from flooding at least three times since it was built as a response to a flood in March 2016 that inundated a major hotel and holiday park and forced the evacuation of 200 people.

Bruce Smith's last Westland District Council meeting.

Joanne Naish/Stuff

Bruce Smith’s last Westland District Council meeting.

His other highlight was saving Sunset Point – a sandspit lookout point between Hokitika’s river and beach – from erosion and securing government funding for the area.

The project made headlines and Smith’s processes were put into question when environmentalist Des Watson spotted polystyrene and plastic among the material there.

Sunset Point, or the Tiphead to locals, was being eaten away by the sea, and a previous council decided to abandon it and let nature take its course because of the cost to protect it.

As soon as Smith became mayor, Sunset Point became his pet project. He contacted every contractor in the area to dump their cleanfill at Sunset Point instead of sending it to the landfill and a number of councilors questioned Smith’s process, particularly the lack of engineer signoff.

Smith said the area was now finished and was a spectacular attraction for locals and tourists.

Sunset Point in Hokitika was in danger of being eaten away by the sea prior to Bruce Smith's term as Westland mayor.

Joanne Naish/Stuff

Sunset Point in Hokitika was in danger of being eaten away by the sea prior to Bruce Smith’s term as Westland mayor.

During Smith’s tenure, he fought down both a proposed vote of no confidence and Minister for Local Government Nanaia Mahuta’s intention to appoint a Crown observer amid concerns about the council’s “dysfunctional governance and management, inadequate policies and poor decision-making processes and allegations of inappropriate behavior and bullying”.

He said the worst part of his job was the “constant battles” with central government about issues like Three Waters, significant natural areas and stewardship land review.

“You can’t win them. You can put your position forward, but you can’t win because the current Government has the numbers to do what it wants,” he said.

He said he would spend some time in Nelson, where he owned a house, to recuperate near his daughter. He has been fighting prostate cancer, Covid-19, pneumonia, sepsis and blood clots.

Bruce Smith, aided with a walker, says he could not have achieved anything without his wife, Jenny.

Joanne Naish/Stuff

Bruce Smith, aided with a walker, says he could not have achieved anything without his wife, Jenny.

Thursday’s was the first meeting Smith has chaired at the council offices since March. He thanked staff and councillors, appealed to the council to be more open and transparent, and wished the council candidates well.

“All I can say is I couldn’t have done any of it without [my wife] Jenny,” he said.

Councilor Paul Davison said Smith was never afraid to speak his mind.

“You’ve shown us the good ways and some bad ways to get the job done, but overall we got the job done,” he said.

Councilor Jenny Keoghan said Smith had been an “absolutely extraordinary” mayor in the past three years, particularly for his communication skills.

“The thing that … I loved about you most, Bruce, is that you got in when you set your mind to something and you made shit happen,” she said.

Three mayoral candidates were among those in attendance at Westland mayor Bruce Smith's last meeting.

Joanne Naish/Stuff

Three mayoral candidates were among those in attendance at Westland mayor Bruce Smith’s last meeting.

Six people have put their hand up to replace Smith in this year’s election:

  • Current council manager and West Coast Civil Defense Emergency Management Group controller Te Aroha Cook.
  • Former South Westland-based councilor Helen Lash, who clashed with Smith over several issues and was sacked by him as deputy mayor but later reinstated.
  • Longest-standing current councilor and former deputy mayor Latham Martin, who lost to Smith by 99 votes in 2019.
  • Hokitika businessman and firefighter Chris Rea, who is currently a director of two council-controlled organisations.
  • Richard Osmaston, who campaigns for a money-free society.
  • Phil Paterson, a quantity surveyor from Harihari who is staunchly anti-1080.

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