DA call-ups condemned 

A TOMAREE-based community group has criticised Port Stephens councillors for approving a number of developments against the advice of council staff since the September 2012 election.

Last month the Tomaree Ratepayers and Residents Association released a "report card" highlighting controversial developments approved in the 12 months since the local government election.

The list includes approved housing subdivisions in severely noise-affected areas and watered down fire safety provisions on new developments in Oyster Cove and Fingal Bay.

In the report the association suggested councillors were not employing "good local government practice" by calling up a number of developments to be voted on by councillors.

"Our main concerns relate to the potential for expensive litigation in the future at great cost to the ratepayers of Port Stephens and to the precedents being set, which could very well open the floodgates to similar applications being pressured to be approved," the report read.

Mayor Bruce MacKenzie has been the driving force behind many of the decisions, including in May when he called up a 53-lot subdivision located in an aircraft-noise affected area in Raymond Terrace. The council passed the development, drawing condemnation from as high as the federal government.

Councillor Geoff Dingle, a vocal critic of Cr MacKenzie, said he believed the staff were being pressured.

"They are under enormous pressure, everyone in this council is being pushed around to meet the needs of Cr MacKenzie," he said.

"With these DAs it's not an issue of staff having a bet each way, they've got rock solid reasons for rejecting most DAs and MacKa and his mob have ignored them."

Yet both councillors and planning staff insist the relationship between the two has never been better.

Mike McIntosh, the council's development services manager, said the relationship between staff and councillors was blossoming.

"We've worked pretty hard on the relationship between all councillors," he said. "Both formally and informally we're constantly keeping them informed of issues [and] the mayor and myself meet regularly, which is not unusual for all group managers.

"I think it [the relationship] is really positive . . . we respect the position they're in and their role in council and equally I feel they respect our role in the decision making process."

He said staff were too aware of their professional reputation to be influenced by pressure in the decision making process.

Cr MacKenzie said the decisions have been made in the interests of Port Stephens residents.

"I'm a doer, I like to do things and I like things to happen, I'll always support things that create employment in construction and long term," he said.

Cr MacKenzie has been a vociferous opponent of what he sees as excessive red tape handed down by the state government, and said he believed council staff were often on his side.

"I think deep down [the staff] would rather the councillors make these decisions on the floor of council," he said. "I think some of the things put down on us from the state government are ridiculous."

UNDER FIRE: The TRRA has levelled criticism at councillors for approving DAs against advice of council staff.

UNDER FIRE: The TRRA has levelled criticism at councillors for approving DAs against advice of council staff.

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