Singleton council spat turns ugly

PRIVATE investigators, spying, anonymous letters alleging ‘‘horrible, nasty’’ behaviour by a female councillor and an election smear campaign top the present agenda at Singleton Council.

As the September elections near, tensions and bickering have reached a point where some believe the council is ‘‘dysfunctional’’.

Even wives, husbands and children of the councillors have been embroiled in the latest round of bitter infighting.

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In a meeting on Monday, marked by crying councillors and allegations of threatening behaviour, former mayor Fred Harvison revealed a private investigator had been hired by the spouse of a councillor to ‘‘spy ’’ on a group of councillors known as ‘‘The Coffee Club’’.

‘‘We thought we were being spied on,’’ Cr Harvison said yesterday.

The husband of Cr Alison Howlett, Max Howlett told the Newcastle Herald yesterday he hired the investigator because members of the group were trying to ‘‘hurt’’ his wife by removing her from the council.

‘‘I had had enough of it,’’ Mr Howlett said.

Cr Harvison denied the group, which usually meets at Singleton’s Worn Out Wares antique and coffee shop, discussed trying to remove Cr Howlett.

He said the group saw the private detective three times.

‘‘There was a guy with a laptop paying close attention to us,’’ Cr Harvison said.

‘‘When we finished, he finished,’’ he said.

On another occasion, the group saw the man and they moved to avoid him.

Cr Harvison said they saw the man making calls on his mobile phone when the group was not at their usual table.

Cr Howlett said the private detective had overheard the group discuss allegations she’d breached the council’s code of conduct.

Cr Howlett was the subject of anonymous complaints under the council’s code relating to the appointment of assistant general manager Henry Wilson.

A review found in March that she breached the code but to a "low or medium level of seriousness" and recommended counselling or training.

Cr Harvison said Mr Wilson, who still lives in Singleton but ceased working for council, attended several gatherings and was quizzed about how to ‘‘speed up agendas’’.

Cr Godfrey Adamthwaite said he was one of five councillors, including mayor Sue Moore and councillors Harvison, Ruth Rogers and Lee Gallagher who met for coffee and ‘‘friendship’’.

Cr Moore said she felt threatened, intimidated and under duress.

‘‘I was one of the people being spied on,’’ Cr Moore said.

‘‘It is unacceptable,’’ she said.

Cr Adamthwaite said the group was not a political block and he did not know why someone would spy on them.

‘‘I find it disgusting that a councillor or the spouse of a councillor would put a private investigator on other councillors.

‘‘What possessed the person to do it and what do they want to get out of it?’’ he said.

Cr Adamthwaite, who is standing again but not for mayor, said his wife was sick and her condition had been badly affected by these events.

‘‘She is jumping at shadows. I am jumping at shadows.’’

Cr Harvison said Cr Rogers had an anonymous letter put into her letterbox that made ‘‘horrible, nasty claims’’ designed to create a possible smear campaign against her during the election.

Cr Rogers told the Newcastle Herald the letter had been addressed to her husband but she did not return calls yesterday.

In 2010, Singleton ratepayers voted in a referendum to elect their mayor by popular vote for a four-year term, rather than yearly elections by councillors.

Mayor Sue Moore is standing for mayor in September as are councillors Harvison, John Martin and Cr Tony McNamara.

Cr Howlett told the Herald in April she would not stand for re-election because of the strain of the recent conflicts.

Cr Harvison said he would arrange a meeting with the Independent Commission Against Corruption to put a case for the use of the investigator and the leaking of emails detailing council business to be investigated.

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