OPINION: Ambiguous alliance undermines Port council

SUSPICIONS: A "team ticket" electoral strategy was not transparent.
SUSPICIONS: A "team ticket" electoral strategy was not transparent.

OUR members and other residents who have spoken to us have expressed bitter disappointment by the revelations in the Newcastle Herald regarding election funding in Port Stephens.

They only confirmed our suspicions about the conduct of the 2012 local government election.

The stories revealed a strategy planned by a group, including some who were already councillors in the previous council, to run a "team ticket" to cement their hold, have the mayor of their choice, and establish a good working majority to support their strong development agenda.

While there may be nothing wrong with the concept, this was not transparent to voters. There was no indication they were voting for a team, as candidates had declared themselves as independent.

Why would you need a "group" if you were independent? Voters were also confused by the undisclosed preference allocations from the various "groups".

When you voted you had no idea where your preferences were really heading. Though not illegal, it was confusing.

We feel sure that constituents would have preferred to have the recent candid revelations made by Councillor Steve Tucker of the "nuts and bolts" of the strategy available to them before they voted.

Rightly so, questions are now being asked about who funded this "team". We believe that potentially more than half of the 66 candidates were involved in the strategy and most of the lead candidates in the undisclosed "groups" could have been in receipt of financial support from the mayor, Bruce MacKenzie.

The O'Farrell state government passed legislation before the elections to ban incorporated developers and those involved in certain industries from funding candidates, yet there is growing evidence that this could have taken place taken place during the Port Stephens elections.

Submissions to the Election Funding Authority, which are on the public record, have raised the question of whether all candidates and groups have fully and accurately declared their expenditure and source of funds in their returns to the authority. These returns show many instances of known expenses not being declared, and discrepancies in reporting of donations.

We have made a complaint to the Electoral Funding Authority regarding these matters and requested a full audit of all candidates' returns. Our main concern is that, if this strategy is given even tacit approval by the Electoral Funding Authority and the state government, it will set a precedent and become a template for future local government elections. Such a precedent would allow wealthy developers to be able to fund enough "tame" candidates and harvest their preferences to ensure an election win for the candidate of their choice.

There is a strong feeling that the integrity and soul has been torn out of our Port Stephens Council by the result and we hope that the state government follows up with a full audit on the recently released donations and expenditure records from the election.

We are concerned that such an audit could reveal improper actions and donations made incorrectly.

The result of this preference stacking has been a continuation of behaviour from the previous council, with many development decisions being made contrary to community input, council staff, and state authority recommendations.

This is a feature of "development-at-any-cost councillors", controlled by a majority group of councillors.

The future legal ramifications of some of these decisions, many of which have been resubmitted after being overturned from the previous council, will be with the ratepayers of Port Stephens for a long time to come.

In the years to come when the council has to find the funds to pay for the consequences of the decisions of this majority group of councillors, ratepayers will continue to miss out on provision of basic services such as roads, regular maintenance and replacement of assets, playgrounds, sporting fields and the like

We will pay in the end, while the developer benefits for now.

We suspected that something was amiss at election time, but it took the release of the Election Funding Authority returns to quantify and disclose some of the details.

We can only put our trust in the state authority audit process and await its outcome.

Let us hope that the full story will be available to every voter before any future local government elections are held, and that the group of councillors who organised the pooling of their votes to control the council's agenda will be around to answer for the causality of some of their decisions.

Margaret Wilkinson is secretary of the Tomaree Ratepayers and Residents Association.