Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes followed the rules last month when she stayed in the chamber and voted on her own appointment to a $50,000-a-year director's role at Newcastle Airport, but her political rivals have written to the NSW government asking for an investigation into the matter.
Cr Nelmes attracted criticism for using her casting vote to break a 6-6 deadlock and approve instruments of delegation which will allow her to sit on two recently formed boards at the airport.
The March 26 council meeting raised questions about whether the lord mayor should have declared a pecuniary interest in the board roles and left the chamber for the debate and vote.
But the 2018 Model Code of Conduct for NSW councils says councillors do not need to declare a pecuniary interest "arising from the appointment of a councillor to a body as a representative or delegate of the council, whether or not a fee or other recompense is payable to the representative or delegate".
An Office of Local Government spokesman confirmed in a written response to the Newcastle Herald that "councillors are not required to disclose interests which arise from appointments to external bodies, whether or not they are paid for that role".
Independent councillor Allan Robinson accused Cr Nelmes during the fiery March 26 debate of "greed" and "plonking yourself" on the board "for an extra $1000 a week of our money".
He and fellow independents Kath Elliott, Andrea Rufo and John Church wrote to new Local Government Minister Shelly Hancock last weekend asking for a "thorough investigation".
Their letter criticises a report to councillors from senior council staff which did not mention the fees attached to the board appointments.
The letter questions whether this was a "deliberate attempt to hide the payments to the Lord Mayor and CEO".
"The section of the report "FINANCIAL IMPACT" also appears to be deliberately misleading by not addressing the cost of the Directors Fees," it says.
The independents say they were unaware of the fees until "concerned third parties" told them.
Cr Nelmes told the Herald on Thursday that the "false claims of Cr Robinson and his mates" were "yet another example of political muck raking".
"I endured a tirade of abuse drenched in veiled misogyny at last month's meeting which was both distressing and unnecessary," she said.
"I call on these councillors who offer no alternative vision for Newcastle to stop the dirty politics and intimidation.
"As an experienced non-executive board director, I currently represent council as a director of our two Newcastle Airport shareholder trusts and the Newcastle Airport Partnership board.
"This has been the case for previous lord mayors, and I expect will remain the case for future lord mayors.
"Newcastle Airport is significantly expanding its operations and therefore the role of its shareholder directors.
"The elected council has delegated this role to the lord mayor, and I thank them for this important opportunity."
Cr Nelmes said the majority of councillors shared her vision for renewal and change in Newcastle.
"This expectation for the expanded director role at Newcastle Airport will be no different. As a catalyst precinct, Williamtown, through the Astro Aerolab precinct for defence and aerospace industries is expected to create 5500 jobs over the next decade.
"I know that I have the support of the majority of councillors to represent the city's interest through the significant work required for the strategic expansion and significant renewal of Newcastle Airport."
Greens councillor John Mackenzie, who is not a signatory to the letter, confirmed he was also unaware of the directors' fees until they were raised during the March 26 debate.
Liberal councillor Brad Luke did not respond to a request for comment.
The airport, which is owned by Newcastle and Port Stephens councils, has undergone corporate restructures in recent years.
The four-person Newcastle Airport Partnership board comprises the executive bosses and mayors of both councils in unpaid roles.
This board oversees Newcastle Airport Pty Limited (NAPL) and Greater Newcastle Aerotropolis Pty Ltd (GNAPL), the latter of which was formed last year to facilitate buying land for the commercial precinct.
The NAPL board, which includes the Newcastle CEO and Port general manager in paid directorships, voted unanimously on February 1 to amend its constitution to increase the number of directors from eight to 10 and allow the councils to directly appoint a second, political representative to the NAPL and GNAPL boards.
Port Stephens has not appointed its mayor, Ryan Palmer, to the boards, leaving its second seat vacant.
Directors earn a combined $45,000 a year plus superannuation to sit on the NAPL and GNAPL boards, which have the same members and meet at the same time once a month.
Mr Palmer told the Herald the NAPL board had "worked well in the past without political appointees, and it is still to be tested whether that's the right thing or not".
"We were quite happy with the way the airport was structured, and we had a request from Newcastle council to make some changes," he said.
The Newcastle independents' letter to Ms Hancock says the proposed board changes at the airport did not come before the full elected council but were "approved by the LM and CEO".
It also questions whether the lord mayor and chief executive should receive fees for sitting on the boards as they are "appointed as part of their roles" and do not have to go through a competitive selection process.
The council's 2017-18 annual report listed Mr Bath's remuneration at $428,892.
Asked why the directors' fees had not been included in the report to councillors, a council spokesperson said fees for airport directors had been set by the NAPL board and benchmarked against remuneration for NSW government board directors in early 2017.
"This benchmarking occurred prior to City of Newcastle CEO Jeremy Bath's appointment to the airport board in July 2017 and has no financial impact on council or ratepayers," the spokesperson said.
Airport directors had been paid since 2003-04, and Mr Bath and Cr Nelmes would take on "significant additional responsibilities as ASIC-listed directors under the Corporations Act on top of their day-to-day roles with City of Newcastle".
The airport had recently secured more than $10 million in state funding, become an international airport, finalised a 20-year master plan and started planning the commercial precinct.
The spokesperson said the NAPL directorships required an "additional level of strategic and direct involvement in critical expansion projects" and both councils were underwriting the airport's debt facility up to $50 million.