‘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.

Sunday News - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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