DUNGOG’s new council will be faced with deciding whether the district will stay on the political map in its present form after voters offered a clear preference on the council merger issues.
Voters have supported a merger with Port Stephens over any other option, a proposal councillors voted against pursuing in the previous term. That decision led to four resignations in the chamber and the retirement of general manager Craig Deasey.
One of those councillors who resigned, former mayor Glenn Wall, returns to the chamber with the highest vote in his ward. He joins Steve Low as a previous leader returning for the new term.
The mass resignations deprived the council of a quorum in June, and general manager Craig Deasey blasted remaining councillors on his way out the door for failing to give staff a clear direction forward.
Dungog voters have done their part on that front after answering four questions on Saturday’s ballot about mergers. Latest results show 70.62 per cent voted against splitting the district into surrounding councils, with an even bigger margin voting against beginning talks to merge with Maitland.
Initial discussions about a Port Stephens merger have won 54.53 per cent support so far, more than retaining an independent Dungog. Mr Wall said the shire would need to begin talks with Port Stephens Council while also bracing to survive alone if talks fell through, but there was another job to be done first.
“We need to get a general manager back into the organisation as quickly as we can,” he said.
“I think we’ve got a fair idea on how to move forward [on merger discussions].”
Incumbents Tracy Norman and Robert Booth also head back to the horseshoe, joining independents Greg Riley, John Connors, Kate Murphy and Digby Rayward and Country Labor’s Jan Lyon.
As part of a separate referendum on the region’s most complex ballot paper, Dungog voters also chose to thin councillor ranks at the next poll and to take control of who leads their eleceted representatives.
71.89 per cent of voters backed cutting from nine councillors back to seven, including a popularly elected mayor for the first time in the shire. A narrower margin of 54 per cent voted against abolishing Dungog’s three designated wards.
For the next three years a decision on which elected councillors will serve as mayor and deputy will be made within the chamber.
Mr Wall said he had been asked numerous times if he would consider standing for mayor again and had not made up his mind. “I’m leaning towards thinking that it’s time we had a fresh set of eyes,” he said.
“It’s something I certainly don’t take lightly.”