A relieved Richard Kempthorne said he had thought it was "on the cards" that his bid for a third Tasman mayoralty term would fail in the face of a dogged challenge by Kit Maling.
Instead he was returned with a much reduced but still comfortable provisional 776-vote majority in a low-turnout election where Tasman voters opted for more of the same.
The three new faces at the council table are the result of retirements - and one of them, Michael Higgins, isn't really new at all, having returned from a one-term hiatus after only just missing out in the Richmond ward last time.
Speaking to the Nelson Mail soon after getting the result on Saturday afternoon, Mr Kempthorne admitted that the morning had been "nerve-racking".
"I'm feeling delighted. I very much enjoy being the mayor and helping our community, and it's not just one sector, it's right across the board. It's a sound result and I'm really looking forward to the next term."
It was clear during the campaign that there was "a lot of sentiment" from residents and ratepayers concerned about rate increases and the council's rapidly enlarging debt, and Mr Maling had campaigned hard.
"He did a huge amount of door-knocking, far more than I was able to do."
The result had sent a message on debt, spending and rates, Mr Kempthorne said.
"It has a real resonance with people. We've picked that up and in the last year our rates increase was a lot less, and we're really looking at what projects we commit to. But that's the key issue I think."
The controversial Lee Valley dam project - which he and Maling both support - was probably not a factor in his slashed total vote, which fell from 9022 in 2010 to 6149 on Saturday's count, Mr Kempthorne said, with most people realising how important it was for the future of the district. He was also pleased to see that all the sitting councillors who stood again were returned.
"I think there is an acceptance that it is a hardworking and very effective council."
He said he intended to keep councillor Tim King - re-elected unopposed in the Moutere-Waimea ward - as his deputy mayor, and over the next week he would try to meet with each councillor as he prepared to make recommendations on the council committee leadership.
The council's new term would be "steady as she goes", he said.
"Probably the key project we'll be working on is the Lee Valley dam, the key issue that we'll need to work on is debt and affordability.
"We've already started on that but it's going to be a big ongoing challenge.
"We will want to do more than we actually can do, if we take affordability into account."
Saturday afternoon was set aside for catching up with friends and supporters at his Richmond home and in the evening the family was going to dinner at Queen St restaurant Three Rooms.
It had been a clean but stressful campaign.
"It's nice that it's over and we can actually come back to the normality of being a council and of giving direction to our staff team," Mr Kempthorne said.
A disappointed Mr Maling - with a marquee in his Pugh Rd garden for a joint 60th birthday and election celebration - said the vote-splitting among the mayor's four challengers had worked against him.
Mr Kempthorne had got just under 38 per cent of the votes, with more than 10,000 votes against him, whereas last time he got 9000 votes with 6000 against him. "It's quite different."
However, he was philosophical and said he probably would not return to local body politics because he would be 63 at the next election, and had given this campaign his best shot.
For 12 weeks Mr Maling door-knocked, several hours a day, five days a week, covering Golden Bay, Motueka, Mapua, Brightwater, Wakefield and Richmond, and the businesses in Murchison.
"I don't think I could have worked any harder."
Debt and rates affordability were the issues he concentrated on and they were what people wanted to talk about, Mr Maling said, and particularly concerned retired people.
"The only way to reduce them is actually to do less, and that's what this council is going to have to face up to."
His message to Mr Kempthorne: "He's got to do better. He got the highest number of votes, but a clear majority voted against him - that's a clear message that the council isn't doing things right."
Without a council role he said he might add insurance broking or some work at Waimea Village, where he has been closely involved with a purchase deal on behalf of residents, to his part-time role with the Community Probation Service.
His birthday party was going ahead, a large election hoarding as the back-drop, and Mr Maling was expecting 40-50 guests.
Third place-getter Maxwell Clark said he had phoned and congratulated Mr Kempthorne, and had been invited to meet the mayor to discuss the issues.
"It's a lovely way to look at life - to work on any issues we thought we could deal with together."
He had enjoyed the campaign and had been able to encourage further discussion on the Lee Valley dam project, which he opposed, and to bring more focus on the TDC's debt, Mr Clark said.
Mr King said he was pleased to be wanted as deputy mayor again and would accept, "subject to the council's approval, of course".
He wasn't surprised by Saturday's results.
"It's clear that the issues of debt and rates are key ones, and that message came through - and also Kit did a huge amount of work, covered a lot of ground and talked to an enormous number of people."
The result for councillors demonstrated that the council has worked collectively.
"There hasn't been a lot of division and divisiveness."
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