The new Mayor of the Far North, Moko Tepania, outside the council chambers just a couple of blocks from his Kaikohe home. Photo / Peter de Graaf
To be “a mayor for all”, bring the council back to basics and effect positive change — those are some of the key goals of the 31-year-old who has made history as the first Māori
mayor of the Far North.
Moko Tepania, a te reo teacher and one-term councillor, beat council veteran Ann Court to the district’s top job after a nail-biting, week-long wait while special votes were counted.
Eight candidates contested the mayoralty but in the end it came down to a knife-edge contest between the top two.
When the initial results were released on October 8, Court had 5995 votes to Tepania’s 5750.
A day later, after last-minute votes were counted, their positions switched with Tepania in front by 7535 votes to Court’s 7288.
In the final results, released just after 10.30pm on Friday, Tepania had 7805 votes and Court 7362, a winning margin of 443.
On the night Tepania described the result as “extremely overwhelming but in such a beautiful way”.
He started moving into the mayoral office, on Kaikohe’s Memorial Ave, on Saturday.
Tepania (Ngāti Kahu ki Whangaroa, Te Rarawa) said his goal was to bring positive change to the Far North.
People were unhappy with the way the council had been operating but the combination of a new chief executive, new mayor and new councillors was “a huge opportunity” for change.
“I’m looking forward to leading that change … It will be a hard task because council has been doing things a certain way for a long time. We need to get back to basics, because we’re not doing that right.”
Those basics included the district’s “horrendous” roads and failing sewage plants.
“We can’t push things like that to the side anymore,” he said.
Tepania also pledged to be “a mayor for all”.
“One of the reasons I ran was because I wanted to be a mayor that can walk in both worlds, that can bring everyone together with an inclusive leadership so we actually progress as a district,” he said.
“The Far North is 50 per cent Māori so I think the leader of our district should be just as comfortable in any one of our 164 marae as they would be in any of our 30 community halls. And, well, I actually managed to get there. It’s going to be really exciting over the next three years to walk the talk. We’re going to be a transparent council, we’re going to have better communications, and we’re going to have better service delivery.”
Tepania warned, however, the council was not “a magic wand” that could fix all the Far North’s problems.
That would require the council, government agencies, business, iwi and hapū to work together, which was why whānaungatanga (building relationships) was the top priority of his first 100 days.
He was also looking forward to getting to know the new councillors and forging a strong team.
“I think we’ve got a really cool team where everyone has different key strengths. That’s going to really benefit our district.”
Tepania said he had never aspired to be mayor and wasn’t even sure about a second term as a councillor.
However, people kept encouraging him to stand for mayor and — given the faith they had placed in him — it would have been disrespectful to not even consider it.
He set Matariki weekend as a deadline to make a decision.
He travelled to Tokerau Beach to see his parents, expecting them to advise against it.
“But they completely surprised me. They said. ‘We think you should do it and you have a lot to offer our district’. So I made that call.”
Another factor was the introduction of Māori wards.
“There’s huge racial division going on in our country right now because, unfortunately, there are parties who can use this [Māori wards] for fear-mongering and as a platform to win votes. I did the work to get a Māori ward, now I have to make sure it’s successful and lead by example.”
Tepania said he was humbled to be the district’s first Māori mayor, but there was no way he was going to be the last.
“I get to have that title now but it’s just a part of the positive change that we need to have.”
He believed his win had already opened doors for others and shown people — right down to five-year-old kids at his kura — what was possible.
“It shows that a Māori boy in Northland can grow up to be mayor, and that you can bring about change. And you can do it with your mana intact and still be yourself.”
The man behind the mayor
Tepania’s mother hails from Mitimiti, in North Hokianga, while his father comes from the tiny settlement of Waihapa, north of Kāeo.
He grew up in Hikurangi and attended St Francis Xavier School and Pompallier College in Whangārei.
During a gap year in Australia he worked as a butcher and even considered taking up an apprenticeship.
Instead he came home and studied teaching, Māori and anthropology at Waikato University.
He returned to Whangārei to teach at Pompallier for four years, then took up a job at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Kaikohe five years ago.
He is not married and has no children — “I’ll be married to the district for the next three years” — and lives in central Kaikohe above a family business.
He is completing a master’s degree in education. His dissertation explores how maramataka, the Māori lunar calendar, can be used to benefit learning.
Tepania loves languages, reading and CrossFit.
He has taught himself Spanish and is learning sign language. Science fiction is his favourite genre, especially the “space opera” novels of Peter F Hamilton.
The history maker
Moko Tepania has already earned a place in history as the first Māori mayor of the Far North and the youngest mayor ever elected in Northland.
The 31-year-old won the district’s first council election run using the STV system and will lead a council which has, also for the first time in Far North history, a Māori majority.
In the 2019 elections, then aged just 28, he was the youngest councillor elected in Northland; in May 2020 a report he prepared is thought to have been the first entirely in te reo in a New Zealand council agenda.
During the September 2020 meeting, to mark Māori Language Week, he spoke only in te reo — another likely first for Aotearoa. A translator was present for other councillors.
Tepania played a key role in the introduction of a Māori ward to the Far North District Council by getting a resolution back on the agenda in May 2021 after an earlier attempt was voted down.
His resolution was passed 7-3 after an emotionally-charged debate in a packed council chamber.
While Tepania is the first Māori to hold the Far North’s top job, other Māori mayors have come before him in Northland.
Four-term Whangārei Mayor Stan Semenoff (1989-98, 2007-10) has whakapapa Māori, and boroughs such as Kaikohe had Māori mayors prior to the local government amalgamations of 1989.
The Far North District has now had six mayors. Tepania’s predecessors are the late Millie Srhoj (1989-92), Sue James (1992-98), Yvonne Sharp (1998-2007), Wayne Brown (2007-13, now Mayor of Auckland) and John Carter (2013-22).
Mayor: Moko Tepania
Ngā Tai o Tokerau Māori Ward: Hilda Halkyard-Harawira, Tamati Rakena, Penetaui Kleskovic, Babe Kapa
Bay of Islands-Whangaroa General Ward: Ann Court, Kelly Stratford, Steve McNally
Kaikohe-Hokianga General Ward: John Vujcich
Te Hiku General Ward: Felicity Foy, Mate Radich
Bay of Islands-Whangaroa Community Board
Kawakawa-Moerewa Subdivision: Roddy Pihema
Kerikeri Subdivision: Lane Ayr, Amy Slack
Paihia Subdivision: Belinda Ward
Russell-Opua Subdivision: Jane Hindle (unopposed)
Waipapa Subdivision: Tyler Bamber (unopposed)
Whangaroa Subdivision: Bruce Mills (unopposed)
Kaikohe-Hokianga Community Board
Kaikohe Subdivision: Chicky Rudkin, Mike Edmonds, Trinity Edwards
North Hokianga Subdivision: Harmonie Gundry
South Hokianga Subdivision: Jessie McVeagh, Tanya Filia
Te Hiku Community Board
Doubtless Bay Subdivision: Sheryl Bainbridge
Kaitaia Subdivision: Adele Gardner, Rachel Baucke, John Stewart
North Cape Subdivision: Darren Axe
Whatuwhiwhi Subdivision: William Subritzky