SEVEN independent councillors from Port Stephens have voted together in 99per cent of decisions since the 2012 election.
And the group has used its numbers in the chamber to push through controversial decisions against the wishes of council staff, the rural fire service and even the former federal government.
The Newcastle Herald revealed on Saturday that in the lead-up to the council poll, mayor Bruce MacKenzie and supporters with close links to the Liberal Party had devised a complex system of candidate preferencing and resource sharing tying seven of the 10 sitting councillors to the mayor.
An analysis of voting records since the election show that in 22 meetings across 372 votes, the councillors who the Herald had linked to Cr MacKenzie had voted against him only three times.
Only one – a decision about a commercial dog kennel in Butterwick – led to enough of an exodus of support for the mayor to lose a vote.
But those councillors have insisted they remain independent. For example, Councillor Ken Jordan, a member of Cr MacKenzie’s inner sanctum, who sits in council as an independent, says he is not part of any agreement to vote for Cr MacKenzie.
‘‘Bruce MacKenzie and I disagree quite often [and] if Bruce MacKenzie thinks he has my vote, well he is wrong,’’ he said.
‘‘It’s absolute garbage. I don’t go to any meetings with my mind made up – Ken Jordan votes as an independent.’’
Cr Jordan argues correctly that the majority of the votes – 337 – were uncontroversial decisions made unanimously.
But the numbers have also seen the bloc push through decisions that have been widely criticised, including at least 12 developments approved or rejected against council staff recommendations.
Cr MacKenzie has been the driving force behind many of those decisions, including one last May when he called up a 53-lot subdivision proposed for an aircraft noise-affected area in Raymond Terrace.
Despite a council staff report saying the subdivision would be considered ‘‘unacceptable’’ under the Department of Defence’s Australian Noise Exposure Forecast maps, councillors passed the development.
That drew condemnation from as high as the federal government. Former parliamentary secretary for defence Senator David Feeney described the decision as a ‘‘breach of trust and a breach of faith with us at Defence and the Royal Australian Air Force and its people at RAAF Base Williamtown’’.
On three separate occasions councillors overturned staff recommendations on building requirements for bushfire-prone areas at Fingal Bay, Oyster Bay and Medowie.
The votes also went against recommendations from the NSW Rural Fire Service.
Cr Geoff Dingle, a long-time rival of Cr MacKenzie, has been highly critical of a number of the decisions.
‘‘A council that brings development applications forward that don’t comply with regulations every month and votes them through every month, I don’t consider that a good council,’’ Cr Dingle said.
Bruce MacKenzie has consistently defended the decisions and argued that they were made in the interests of Port Stephens residents.
‘‘I’m a doer, I like to do things and I like things to happen. I’ll always support things that create employment in construction, and long term,’’ Cr MacKenzie said.
Cr MacKenzie has been a vociferous opponent of what he sees as excessive red tape handed down by the state government.
He said he believed the council staff were often on his side when he rejected their advice.
■CLARIFICATION: Comments made by Bob Beale in Saturday’s Newcastle Herald were his own. He was not speaking on behalf of community group Voice of Wallalong and Woodville.