THE mayor of Port Stephens, Bruce MacKenzie, admits he has a ‘‘conflict of interest’’ in a controversial Williamtown sand mine, but says it shouldn’t stop him voting on the issue at council meetings.
At Tuesday night’s chaotic council meeting, Cr MacKenzie and five allied councillors voted to approve the transfer of the mine lease from the Tinkler-backed Castle Quarry Products to another company, Williamtown Sand Syndicate.
During the meeting, Councillor Geoff Dingle, who opposes the mine and is a political enemy of Cr MacKenzie, said the mayor should excuse himself from the debate because he had a conflict as the ‘‘local sand baron’’.
Cr MacKenzie’s private business, MacKas Sand, holds major sand mining interests in Port Stephens.
He dismissed Cr Dingle’s comments as ‘‘garbage,’’ saying he had ‘‘no interest at all’’ in the mine. However, the Newcastle Herald has accessed an email from February 24 this year in which the mayor told Cain Gorfine, a Williamtown resident who leads a community group opposed to the mine, that he could not comment because ‘‘I have a conflict of interest in this matter’’.
In subsequent emails, Cr MacKenzie wrote that he couldn’t comment because of ‘‘my position as mayor of Port Stephens’’.
‘‘Given council is the owner of the land in question, I do not feel it appropriate to comment on the proposed activities on the subject site,’’ he wrote.
When asked about the email on Wednesday, Cr MacKenzie admitted to having a conflict of interest, saying it was ‘‘because I am a sand miner’’.
He argued he could not join Mr Gorfine in opposing the mine because he might have been accused of obstructing a potential competitor.
When asked if that conflict meant he shouldn’t take part in voting on issues relating to the mine he said he ‘‘couldn’t see why’’ it would.
‘‘I have absolutely no financial interest in this mine at all,’’ he said.
The transfer of the lease for the 4.6million tonne sand mine on Cabbage Tree Road to Williamtown Sand Syndicate on Tuesday marks the next chapter in a process that a number of councillors described as ‘‘smelly’’.
The tender for the mine lease was awarded to Castle Quarry Products in 2013 against the advice of council staff.
Castle Quarry Products is part of the Buildev Group and its sole director is Darren Williams. Mr Tinkler is the largest shareholder of Buildev Group and for years Mr Williams served as a confidant to the former billionaire.
After continued speculation about the company’s financial state, the council staff confirmed last week that there was ‘‘a risk that CQP will not be able to fund the outstanding approval process or the start up of the project’’.
The staff wrote in an email to councillors that Williamtown Sand Syndicate, which was only registered with ASIC this month, was a ‘‘stand alone company with no connections to Nathan Tinkler or any of his companies or operations’’.
The company’s director is Newcastle accountant Chris Sneddon, and the council previously said there were two other businessmen involved in the firm.
On Tuesday night a senior council staffer described those men as ‘‘reputable businessmen’’.
The Newcastle Herald can reveal that the two other businessmen involved in the company are Mr Williams and former Castle Quarry Products employee Murray Towndrow.
Last year Mr Williams was at the centre of the ICAC hearings that saw the resignation of Hunter politicians.
Mr Gorfine has called on the Local Government Minister Paul Toole to investigate the council.