Dungog Council says no, again, to a merger with Port Stephens

GOBSMACKED: Nationals MP for the Upper Hunter, Michael Johnsen.

GOBSMACKED: Nationals MP for the Upper Hunter, Michael Johnsen.

UPPER Hunter MP Michael Johnsen has called for his own government to sack Dungog Council and appoint an administrator after councillors rejected the government’s $15 million merger promise in favour of standing alone.

A packed public gallery jeered when councillors voted 4-3 against a motion which, if it had been supported, would have led to the council pursuing a voluntary merger with neighbouring Port Stephens. 

Mr Johnsen spoke at the meeting and received loud applause when he confirmed that the government would provide the council with a $15 million rescue package if it pursued the merger.

Concerns about whether the money would be available had led Port Stephens MP Kate Washington to accuse the government of trying to “mislead” Dungog residents.

But Mr Johnsen read from an email from the office of Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton "confirming" that if "Dungog support the merger there will be $15 million in financial support from the NSW government for the new council".

However, in a surprise move councillor Tracy Norman, who two weeks ago supported a push for the merger, said she didn’t support the rescission motion that sought to overturn the council vote from a fortnight ago. That decision effectively halts a merger proposal going forward in the immediate future. 

Cr Norman said she changed her vote because supporting rescission motion would overturn what she called “a democratic decision”.

The rescission motion – and a planned subsequent vote which would have begun the process of pursuing the voluntary merger with Port Stephens – had been expected to pass because two councillors who voted against an amalgamation two weeks ago did not attend the meeting.

After that meeting on May 1 the deputy mayor Tony McKenzie resigned immediately because of ill health, and another councillor, Neville Bale, was absent because of a recent surgery.

After the vote a “gobsmacked” Mr Johnsen called for his own government to step in, sack the council and appoint an administrator.

“The government should step in on behalf of the community and appoint an administrator,” he said.

“I’m absolutely gobsmacked ... this council knows it’s unsustainable, the government has offered this money and they’ve said no, what else can we do?”

Port Stephens Councillor Ken Jordan spoke at the meeting and said the council had put forward the merger proposal with Dungog because it was “the morally right thing to do”.

“If you don’t support this we're not going to cry, we'll move on,” he said.

However after the vote he jeered along with much of the public gallery.

Dungog Mayor Harold Johnston, who previously opposed the marriage with Port Stephens, again voted in favour of the merger. 

He said he had "lived" the merger process since 2011, and "knew it better than my grandchildren".

"There's not a person in this community who doesn't know I've been very slow in reaching my decision," he said.

"All I know is that everything in life is not black and white."

He said he “had his doubts” about Port Stephens, but had come to the conclusion that the Dungog ratepayers would be better off with the merger.

“At the moment I can see so many things we can't do,” he said.

“We seem to spend most of our time doing the things we have to do, with little capacity or time to do things we want to do.

“And there’s a lot this community wants us to do.”

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