Port Stephens and Dungog councillors are at the centre of a defamation case over an email

PORT Stephens councillor Paul Le Mottee has accused a fellow councillor of defaming him in an email by falsely claiming mayor Bruce Mackenzie secured Cr Le Mottee’s loyalty by “arranging” approvals for Cr Le Mottee’s development projects.

In a NSW Supreme Court claim Cr Le Mottee said an email sent by fellow councillor Geoff Dingle to a Dungog councillor in March, 2016 carried the imputation Cr Le Mottee was corrupt because of an alleged relationship with Cr Mackenzie.

Cr Dingle and Cr Mackenzie have settled a defamation case launched by Cr Mackenzie against Cr Dingle over the email.

In a claim before Justice Lucy McCallum, Cr Le Mottee alleged the email was defamatory because it falsely claimed he was “corrupt in that he accepted campaign funding from the mayor and in return does what the mayor expects of him”.

Cr Le Mottee claimed the email also carried the imputation he acted improperly as a member of “a group of councillors aligned with the mayor” which conducted meetings without transparency.

Cr Le Mottee launched defamation action against Cr Dingle, Dungog Shire councillor Linda Bowman and Cr Bowman’s husband Ken Kneipp after Cr Dingle forwarded an email to Cr Bowman on March 22, 2016, which Cr Bowman forwarded to nine people the following day.

The email exchange occurred as the two councils considered merging under the NSW Government’s controversial local government amalgamation process.

Cr Le Mottee alleged the email was eventually seen by Cr Mackenzie, Port Stephens Council general manager Wayne Wallis and Singleton Council general manager Jason Linane, other Port Stephens Council staff, a Clarence Town Progress Association member, and “constituents” of Dungog, Port Stephens and Singleton councils.

Justice McCallum directed Cr Le Mottee to clarify if he alleged Cr Bowden and Mr Kneipp forwarded the email beyond the initial nine people who were sent the email on March 23, 2016, or if it was “a question of relying upon the ‘grapevine’ effect”.

“That should be made plain. The current pleading does not make any of those matters clear,” Justice McCallum said.

In a decision made public on Monday Justice McCallum noted that Cr Dingle admitted sending the email to Cr Bowman and Mr Kneipp’s email address, and Cr Bowman admitted forwarding the email to nine recipients.

Cr Dingle, Cr Bowman and Mr Kneipp objected to Cr Le Mottee’s claim the email carried the imputation he was corrupt because it alleged he accepted campaign funding from Cr Mackenzie “and in return does what the mayor expects of him”.

Justice McCallum rejected their objection.

“The email is reasonably capable of being understood to mean that to accept a payment from the mayor, and then in return do what the mayor expects, entails corruption,” Justice McCallum said.

The imputation and others would be referred to a jury to determine.

The matter will return to court on June 2.