City's debt and future main issues in debate

Dunedin mayoral candidate Andrew Whiley addresses the crowd at yesterday's 2013 Dunedin Mayoral...
Dunedin mayoral candidate Andrew Whiley addresses the crowd at yesterday's 2013 Dunedin Mayoral Forum, while rivals (from left) Hilary Calvert, Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull, Olivier Lequeux, Cr Lee Vandervis, Aaron Hawkins, Kevin Dwyer and Pete George...

Battle lines were drawn as Dunedin's mayoral candidates squared off yesterday over the future of the city and its economy.

The political melee unfolded as Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull and seven rivals set out their visions for the city's future at the Otago Chamber of Commerce-Otago Daily Times 2013 Dunedin Mayoral Forum.

About 70 people were at the Otago Museum's Hutton Theatre for the 90-minute debate, which canvassed issues of job creation, council debt and whether or not to roll out the red carpet for oil and gas companies.

Mr Cull was repeatedly forced to defend his record, and that of his council, while insisting the good work needed to continue.

His rivals attempted to take a sledgehammer to his performance by attacking the council's response to a host of issues over the past three years.

The mostly civilised debate grew heated at times, and there were catcalls from sections of the audience when most candidates declared their support for oil and gas exploration.

Only Green Party candidate Aaron Hawkins opposed the idea outright, after a member of the audience asked candidates to declare their positions.

Mr Cull wavered, initially saying yes before backtracking - saying he misunderstood the question - and insisting more information was needed about risks and rewards before he could commit.

The debate began with a stunt from Olivier Lequeux, who helped a young woman pretending to be ''totally blind and totally deaf'' to her seat, before comparing her plight to Mr Cull: ''He doesn't know where he's going.''

However, Mr Cull defended his ''record of achievement'' over the past three years while reducing rates increases, cutting costs, accelerating debt repayments and trying to heal a divided council.

He pointed to the city's economic development strategy and burgeoning economic links with Shanghai as key achievements, and believed growing visitor numbers and renewable energy businesses were opportunities for the future.

However, Cr Lee Vandervis insisted the city was being sucked dry by debt costs that continued to mount under Mr Cull and his ''Greater Debt Dunedin'' team.

He wanted South Island mayors to form a Mainland Party to represent their interests, and insisted a unitary council - combining the DCC and Otago Regional Council - would mean savings that could accelerate debt repayments.

''To lead the push for jobs we need to do the things that Mayor Cull has said, but hasn't done,'' Cr Vandervis said.

Mr Hawkins suggested the city should focus on a greener, more sustainable future, and open a ''Dunedin shop'' in Brazil to promote the city's wares.

Kevin Dwyer wanted an extension of the Dunedin airport runway, while Andrew Whiley said the city needed to attract more investment after failing to secure the $100 million waterfront hotel.

''What have we given them? Red tape. Where's the red carpet?''

Former Act New Zealand MP Hilary Calvert said the city needed to focus on its finances, get rid of underperforming assets and have a permanent lobbyist in Wellington.

Pete George wanted more consultation, more leadership and less bickering with the chamber, while Mr Lequeux said the council should be offering more assistance to businesses, and encouraging school-leavers to stay in the city.

Debt remained a major issue and led to further testy exchanges as Mr Cull insisted the ''huge'' inherited problem was being turned around.

Cr Vandervis scoffed at that, saying debt grew under Mr Cull's watch, as projects like the town hall upgrade went ahead and council companies continued to borrow.

Mr Whiley said debt repayments and new spending needed to be balanced, or people would not want to live in the city.

Mr Hawkins wanted to find ways to improve the return from Forsyth Barr Stadium, while Mr Dwyer wanted to sell it.

Only mayoral candidate Steve McGregor missed yesterday's debate, which also included cycleway spending, the push for a living wage, the need to neuter cats, and to free up leasehold land.

chris.morris@odt.co.nz

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