‘Nice joker’ gets things done
Tony Kokshoorn, the West Coast mayor who became a household name following the Pike River tragedy, is stepping down after 21 years in politics. Joanne Carroll looks at his triumphs and tragedies.
WHENa West Coaster posted on a community Facebook page that some low-life had stolen an elderly neighbour’s winter firewood, Tony Kokshoorn responded immediately. ‘‘Give me a ring,’’ he wrote. The elderly woman soon had a pile of wood delivered to her door.
‘‘He’s cool, I like Tony,’’ she says. ‘‘He got his lads to bring me a load of wood. He’s a very nice joker.’’
Kokshoorn is renowned around Greymouth for rolling up his sleeves – during 2014’s Cyclone Ita he climbed a ratepayer’s roof to hammer down tarpaulin; recently he paid $1500 out of his own pocket to paint a derelict building that had attracted squatters and vandals and then put his back out pulling a steel awning
off it. He also rolled out lawn onto the new town square.
For 15 years he’s been Grey District mayor, unopposed, and for 21 he’s been in politics. But next year, he’s turning in his badge.
Those who know him can’t quite believe it – Kokshoorn has boundless energy. But his do-ityourself attitude has been divisive too.
Kokshoorn’s deputy for 12 years, Doug Truman, says ‘‘on balance’’ Kokshoorn has achieved a lot, considering what the town had been through with the Pike River disaster.
‘‘But his managerial style left a bit to be desired. Tony is Tony. He has sort of been his own boss and totally goes in guns firing,’’ Truman says.
‘‘He doesn’t delegate... he’d rather take it on himself than take councillors along with him.’’
Truman is perhaps referring to a letter five disgruntled councillors wrote to Kokshoorn last year, labelling him a dictator for not keeping them informed. Councillor Allan Gibson, wrote he was continually hearing about council business via the media.
‘‘He has done a very good job. Sometimes we’re not too sure what’s going on but the end result is normally pretty good,’’ Gibson said.
Kokshoorn’s most hearty praise comes from families of Pike River victims.
He spent his first 10 years in politics lobbying for the Pike River Mine to be built to bring much-needed jobs to the Coast.
After the disaster, Kokshoorn became a household name throughout New Zealand. He raced to the mine site after getting a call from police that there had been an explosion and up to 30 people were missing.
Pike River widow Anna Osborne remembers Kokshoorn’s kindness.
She was the first family member at the mine after the explosion and got into an office area – off-limits to the public – where she camped for four nights,, refusing to leave without her husband, miner and Grey District councillor Milton Osborne.
Her dilemma was that she was missing out on meetings with families, as she resolutely vowed to stay to see out her husband.
When Pike management asked Kokshoorn to tell her to leave, he instead negotiated with officials to allow her out to DAVID HALLET/STUFF attend family meetings, and then back up to the mine again.
Bernie Monk will be forever grateful to Kokshoorn for fronting the media for them.
‘‘I remember after Pike River his wife saying to me she was worried about the lack of sleep. He went quite a long time without sleep. He left his car running outside the Red Cross for hours because he had so much on his mind.’’
Monk says Kokshoorn is unselfish with his time for the people of the West Coast.
‘‘I hold him in the highest regard. A person like that is very irreplaceable. I shouldn’t be too cynical about the person who will be our next mayor but . . . it will take a very good person to do as much as him.’’
Post-disaster he rocketed into the top 10 of the Reader’s Digest poll of ‘‘most trusted New Zealanders’’, and the most trusted politician.
As well as being a natural story-teller – in 2013 winning the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand’s Communicator of the Year award – he’s a good track record of achievements. When he arrived at council in 1998, Grey had the highest rates on the Coast, sewerage flowed into the Grey River and the council was $15 million in debt.
Now,rates are the lowest on the Coast, and the eighth-lowest in New Zealand. Council debt has risen to $30m, but for that the district has received $135m in new infrastructure including an aquatic and recreation centre, a town square and a new sewerage scheme.
‘‘If you have a sustainable economy you won’t get the booms and busts and it’s the busts that send our youth out of the community. Our biggest export has been our kids.’’
Kokshoorn knows – two of his four children are living overseas.
The eldest, Brett, is manager of Greymouth Evening Star, of which Kokshoorn owns 38 per cent. Reece, 36, runs an electronics business in Australia and has two children. Matt, 25, is working for Apple in Silicon Valley. Daughter Jess, 23, is due to graduate as a doctor of medicine this year from Otago University.
Kokshoorn has been married to Lynne, a coal miner’s daughter, for more than 40 years. She doesn’t like the spotlight, she’d rather keep her privacy than be in public life, but says life with the mayor has been ‘‘very busy’’.
‘‘He’s a workaholic. It has worked for us in that we are traditional. He worked and I looked after the children at home. I’m the cook. He can’t cook.’’
She is not sure how her husband, who is always on the phone and whose door is always open, will cope with retirement.
Apart from spending more time with his family, in particular his grandchildren, Kokshoorn doesn’t know what he’ll do next. But he will always stay on the Coast, and might do more volunteering.
‘‘I will live and die in this place, that’s how much I love it,’’ he says.