New challenges, travel on the horizon

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Tony Lepper is a straight talker and he is not planning on changing that any time soon.

The athlete, sports leader, racehorse owner, irrigation manager and orchardist has added a new title to his resume – former mayor – and he is frank about the adjustments that are going to be necessary.

After working 60-hour weeks as mayor and part-time irrigation company manager, he knows he will not enjoy having too much spare time on his hands, and is already considering future opportunities that would provide the challenges and intellectual stimulation his mayoral role provided.

New governance and/or management roles will be sought, but in the meantime he is happy to have a more relaxed summer than he would otherwise have had, and looking forward to doing some more overseas travelling with his wife, Bernie Lepper.

But the pride of his achievements while mayor will remain, and satisfaction with his leadership style, too.

“I’ve never been P.C. It’s not in me. I just think I was brought up to say it as it was. I don’t act like a politician. Say it like it is and take the consequences, really.”

But for someone so proudly non-political he weighed in on several meaty issues while leading the Central Otago community.

The first was only months after he was sworn in as mayor, when Mr Lepper openly criticised Central Otago police for the charges they laid against a father whose son had drowned when the family’s parked rental vehicle rolled into Lake Dunstan. The handbrake was not on in the van, and the father was charged with careless driving causing death the day of the incident.

Mr Lepper was outraged local police laid such a serious charge and on the day the boy died, and a personal involvement with the case heightened his anger. Mr Lepper had been driving past at the time and was one of the people who stripped off and dived repeatedly into Lake Dunstan to try to free the 3-year-old boy, who was trapped in the van.

After having seen the grief and tragedy of the situation first-hand, Mr Lepper went public and criticised the police through the media for laying the charges.

The father was later discharged without conviction, and police defended their decision to lay charges.

But Mr Lepper said the case still rankled with him.

“The local cops were being heavy-handed [to lay charges so soon] and it wasn’t right. It was such an injustice, the driver being charged the very same night his son had died… When police do something wrong it takes them a year to be charged or they’re not charged at all. They have different standards [between charging others and themselves].”

What the episode taught him was “that if you went to the press and talked you could be on the front page the next day”.

It was the beginning of a relationship with the media during which he spoke out on various serious topics, and he counted several significant victories.

Mr Lepper was proud to lead his council’s tough stance against psychoactive substances, publicly criticising Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne for his inconsistent policies and then working out a way to legally prohibit retailers from selling the legal highs in Central Otago by developing new zoning in the district.

He was also outspoken about a recent police objection to a liquor licence for the Omakau trots which would have threatened the future of the community event, and was pleased when police withdrew their objection and the event’s future was assured – for another year, at least.

And when three years ago Mr Lepper decided it would be ridiculous to name an unnamed peak near the Remarkables after a three-legged cooking pot, he did not just argue the point with the New Zealand Geographic Board in theory, he “knocked the bastard off”, climbing the peak with his wife, Bernie, and Cromwell Community Board member Gordon Stewart, and then lobbying directly with the Minister for Land Information Maurice Williamson for an alternative name.

His campaign was successful and the Central Otago District Council (CODC) worked with Ngai Tahu to come up with alternative names for two unnamed peaks: the highest unnamed peak, in a range between the Remarkables and the Hector Mountains, was called Mt Tuwhakaroria – from a creation legend about the “treading of the land” by Rakaihautu, who was said to have formed the great southern lakes with Tuwhakaroria, his formidable digging stick – while the next-highest peak, beside it, was known as Te Karearea Peak, after the native falcon karearea.

The Maori name for the three-legged cooking pot – Te Kohua – was given to a lake underneath the two peaks and all were happy.

The experience taught Mr Lepper skills in negotiating with national government and he was proud to have “reinstated that relationship between us and Wellington” regarding advocacy for Central Otago at a national level as a key part of his role as mayor. He hopes the new mayor, Tim Cadogan, will continue that work, including for a current issue, proposed Electricity Authority reforms that would threaten the viability of Pioneer Energy power stations and dividends to the Central Lakes Trust.

But now, life for Mr Lepper out of the CODC goes on. He has already had a couple of career changes, initially interested in journalism after studying at Canterbury University, but instead going to teacher’s college but teaching for only a year, disliking the bureaucracy of the education system.

After marrying, the couple travelled overseas and returned to Central Otago in 1983, when Mr Lepper entered orcharding and the irrigation sector.

He was elected to the CODC in 1989 and served four terms as a councillor, three as deputy mayor and two as mayor.

He also later gained a Kellog Rural Leaders Scholarship for postgraduate study at Lincoln University in 2000.

Mr Lepper’s good memories of his council role include most recently working with newish council chief executive officer Leanne Mash, with whom he worked hard to start bringing about positive change within council culture.

“We really felt like the staff and councillors were beginning to make change, and this council will reap the benefits of that.”

So next it is new directorships perhaps, more travelling and sports events definitely. Mr Lepper has been a high-profile multisport athlete, having done five Coast to Coasts and 16 Goldrush events.

He was the chairman of Sport Otago for nine years and is still the chairman of Sport Central, and is a keen hunter, too, loving nothing better than being out in the hills with his beloved Hungarian Vizsla, Rosie.

He will take good memories of the people he has met and the results he has achieved with him as he seeks new challenges, and is still chuffed with some recent comments about his leadership style.

During recent interviews, John Campbell told Mr Lepper he “rocked” and Mike Hosking said he was a “bloody good fella”.

To get such sincere and down-to-earth praise was a nice “pat on the back”, Mr Lepper said.