Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Singing mayor strays off key in campaign

Singing mayor strays off key in campaign 5:30 AM Sunday Oct 3, 2010 Mayoress Ying Foon with the album by Mayor Meng Foon. Photo / Supplied In the remaindered rack of Gisborne's Dollar Dreams discount shop are the last couple of copies of Tu Mai, a rare but not very collectible compact disc of the town's smiling mayor singing his own compositions. Nobody else sells the CD and - let's be honest - Dollar Dreams sells it only because Mayor Meng Foon owns the store. Meng Liu Foon is one of the enigmas of local body politics in this country. He swept to a landslide victory in 2001 to become New Zealand's first Chinese mayor in a region known for biculturalism, not multiculturalism. He is seeking his fourth term against one opponent, whose early efforts had him lagging against Foon's charisma. Foon's Chinese heritage and relative youth set him apart from the start: he was 42 years old on a council where the average age was closer to 60. There is something likeable about his direct approach, the way he speaks "Menglish" and his tendency to make gaffes in public places. Like the time he told a group of people with mental illness they should keep themselves clean, because people did not want to hire people who smelled. But he never forgets the name of a constituent. He can walk into a marae at Rangitukia or a rural hall at Tiniroto and address everyone by name during the council's annual community consultation tours. He is surely one of the few people, anywhere, who speaks both Cantonese and Maori. This makes him a de facto representative of half the region's population, and, for this reason, he was widely thought to be unbeatable. Until this past week. Foon does not only speak Maori, he can think like a Maori and do business the Maori way. One suspects it is similar to the canny way of the Chinese. He started in business as an 8-year-old, using a wooden box to reach the till in the family vege shop. At 10 he and his brother were making $12,000 a year each, selling puha to the local markets, banking the proceeds in their Post Office Savings books at school. "Come March our father would say it's time to sign this little slip of paper and then he would go out and buy new land or a tractor so we think we contributed well to the family business." By the time he was in his early 20s, the family business included the TAB and liquor store in Kaiti, where Meng Foon discovered how much money people had for spending. By 1988 the family owned the Kaiti Mall. * * * Going into his home at Makaraka to see the mayor cooking a traditional dish, it is obvious he is also steeped in Chinese traditions. On the wall is a photo of the infant Meng, with his trademark round face, cheeky smile and winking eyes, in a pushchair being pushed by his mother, who looks as glamorous as his wife Ying. In the kitchen he is surrounded by Ying and her sisters, who boss him around with indulgent affection. He says one dish would be most unfortunate, so the family decided on eight courses, "an auspicious number". Auspicious and prosperous are Foon's favourite words and part of his personal mantra. His own special dish is a divine creation of raw oysters suspended in a lightly cooked Chinese omelette. After dinner, guests are led to the mayor's upstairs sanctum, to view documentaries that have screened at Te Papa and on television, and treated to a the sounds of his CD, Tu Mai. He is certainly talented. Foon can sing like a Viennese choirboy in Maori. But there is something else about Meng Foon that has consistently raised his profile, and that is his tendency to shoot from the lip. "Up the coast" he switches into full tikanga mode, which he learned as a schoolboy from his workmates in the vege fields of Makaraka where he spent more time in the paddocks than at school. Outlining the achievements of his council, his favourite yarn is about the enormous cost of the city's new wastewater plant. At $40 million, this is really costing them only the equivalent of a bottle of Pump a day, he says - and even if they have diarrhoea and go 10 times to the loo it costs no more. Although some of the attending executives may cringe, the audiences enjoy this banter. His councillors take his public announcements in stride - they either over-ride or ratify them at later meetings. On the East Coast's high incidence of drink-driving crashes he made national headlines with his comments over a Steinlager-goes-well-with-marijuana mentality. After a nationwide survey on flatulence, he said a local fondness for kinas - or sea eggs - might be to blame for Gisborne topping the list, claiming also that everything in the town was cooked with onions. While some cringe at his blunt approach, most people in his electorate view it as a likeable "what you see is what you get" honesty. But sometimes he goes too far. Like when he claimed this month that he - "myself personally" - saved the ratepayers $54 million on the wastewater treatment plant. After being challenged about this, he apologised for wrongfully taking the credit, attributing this to his natural enthusiasm and positivity. Then were the revelations over his credit card use, which had been deemed by his council minders as acceptable. The receipts that came later showed Meng Foon was not far behind that other singing mayor, Manukau's Len Brown, having racked up nearly $8000. It was spent mostly on meals and entertainment, including a $2340 Christmas shout for his councillors at a licensed cafe. The lavish shout, and the fact that he used his council card to buy himself a coffee or tea while on council business, caused local flak, especially when, in the face of a 7 per cent rate hike, people found out he was being paid $1800 a week. But most seemed reassured by Meng's comments that he was always frugal, and just as often paid the cost of hosting people from his own pocket. Then came the faux pas to beat them all, a court report from Palmerston North last week revealing Meng Foon had provided a reference for a Gisborne Mongrel Mob member, Joseph Donnelly, being sentenced there for a particularly nasty rape. Many people, including police, were gobsmacked by his official support for a man the police have struggled to convict - often because the victims have been unwilling to testify. It came after an intensive community campaign over the past few years for zero tolerance of violence against women, leaving many people wondering whether this was a case of naivety, misguided generosity, stupidity or just "buffoonery". His opponent Gary Hope has surged ahead in unofficial local polls, but has not made hay out of Foon's blunder, saying it is not his style to kick a man who is down. He says he has nothing against Meng. He just believes it is time for a change. "People in power too long get too complacent," says Hope. Foon says he regrets the letter intensely and did not really think about the repercussions. He shows me his new rules for writing letters and they include guidelines such as "will it come back to bite us in the bum?" He does not want to lose the mayoralty. He says it's the best job he's had. - Herald on Sunday http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=10677802

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