Kate Washington criticises Port Stephens Council after $200k fighting fund

KATE Washingtonhas accused Port Stephens Councilof “sealing its own fate” and ensuring a merger with Newcastle by voting to spend up to $200,000 on a fund to fight the state government’s amalgamation plan.

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Less than 24 hours after the traditional political rivals agreed to put their differences aside to fight the merger, Ms Washington, the state member for Port Stephens and new shadow minister for the Hunter, said the council had “acted outside the rules of the merger process” by agreeing to spend the money.

“By their own actions, they have justified the government’s decision,” Ms Washington said.

The resumption of hostilities came as Port Stephens Mayor Bruce MacKenzie accused the state governmentof “holding a gun to the head” of councillorsby suggesting that only those “supportive” of mergerswould be appointed to help run an amalgamated council.

A letter written to the mayors of councils subject to a proposed mergerby the minister for local government, Paul Toole,states that the government “remains committed to allowing councillors that are supportive of making the new council a success the opportunity to shape the future of the new council”.

The wording has been interpreted as a “threat” by councillors from Port Stephens, who now fear theywill be excluded if the merger goes ahead.

All but two councillors –Geoff Dingle, who is in Tasmania, and John Morello -were presentto vote in favour of spending $200,000 to fight the mergerat an extraordinary meeting on Tuesday night.

The aim of the fund, according to councillors, is to help fight the government’s merger proposal, andPort Stephens Mayor BruceMacKenzie argues ithas put them at risk of being left in the cold if a merger goes ahead.

“It’s a threat, I read it is as a threat and I don’t know how anyone could read it as anything else,” he said.

“They’re holding a gun to thehead of councillors, but as far as I’m concerned they can stick it up their jumper, there’s no way I am going to sit back while they try to undo all the good work I havedone in Port Stephens.”

But Ms Washington believes that the council has wrong-footed itself by spending the money, and may have instead strengthened the government’s hand.

“An information campaign is different to the battle that was proposed at last night’s meeting,” she said.

“Fighting amerger proposal is very different to‘informing the local community’.”

Asked whether councillors who opposed the merger would be left out if an interim council was appointed, a spokesman for Mr Toole said only that“no decisions have been made in relation to the manner in which existing councillors may continue to be involved in a new council for a merged area”.

Under the local government act the minister has the power toappoint either“a single person or group of people to act as administrators”or to allow “the continuation in office of councillors from the former council areas as councillors of a new area”.

Ms Washington was also critical of a number of anti-merger signs that have popped up in Port Stephens with slogans like“bugger off Nelmes”, calling them“crass”.

“This is a thinly veiled attempt to divert residents’ attention from the fact that a Liberal State government is snuffing out a Liberal Council,” she said.

“Last night’s decision has reinforced the reason why that’s occurring, Port Stephens Council has played outside the rules for too long, and is continuing to do so.”