Dungog mayor and three councillors walk out, calls for state government to act after day of chaos

RESIGNED: Harold Johnston says he cannot stay on as Dungog mayor after supporting a failed merger with Port Stephens. His resignation is effective immediately.
RESIGNED: Harold Johnston says he cannot stay on as Dungog mayor after supporting a failed merger with Port Stephens. His resignation is effective immediately.

UPPER Hunter MP Michael Johnsen says he is “hopeful” Dungog could be placed into an administrator’s hands as early as Friday after the organisation was rocked by major resignations on Thursday. 

The council has been thrown into chaos and is unable to conduct its business after four councillors – including mayor Harold Johnston – resigned on Thursday.

The sensational development has prompted Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen to appeal to the state government to appoint an administrator for the cash-strapped council “as a matter of urgency”, labelling the predicament “unworkable”.

Mr Johnsen told ABC radio on Friday that he had contacted both Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her deputy John Barilaro about the matter.

With five members of the nine-person council now tendering their resignation, the council is unable to reach a quorum and cannot vote on its business items. 

Mr Johnsen said that the council would be unable to forge ahead with a merger under an administrator’s control but something had to change. 

“The government in my view needs to step in and steady the ship,” he said.

“We need to think about the community and we need to think about the staff in particular.

“We need to do something ASAP.”

The walkout makes worse an already unstable council, with councillors last month voting 4-3 against a voluntary merger with Port Stephens council, despite Dungog’s financial difficulties and a $15 million state government sweetener on the table.

TIME TO ACT: Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen urges his government to step in.

TIME TO ACT: Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen urges his government to step in.

Outgoing mayor Harold Johnston on Thursday night told the Newcastle Herald that  his position, after earlier supporting the merger, had become untenable.

He also called for the council to be placed in administration.

“I cannot emphatically and enthusiastically promote a motion I don’t support,” Cr Johnston said.

He denied his resignation was designed to force the government’s hand to back a merger.

“If I was trying to force a particular agenda, this is the last thing you’d have done – you want to be inside the tent,” he said. 

“It’s a sad way of saying goodbye to this council. This is not the way I wanted it to happen.”

Also to resign on Thursday were councillors Glen Wall, Stephen Farrow and Neville Bale. Former deputy mayor Tony McKenzie resigned last month for health reasons.

Earlier on Thursday, general manager Craig Deasey also resigned, citing health issues. The general manager will leave council on July 4.

Cr Johnston said earlier in the day that Mr Deasey, who also supported the merger, was leaving because of health issues.

He was three years into his five-year contract. 

“He’s resigned for health reasons and for his general well-being,” Cr Johnston said.

The Herald reported last month that Dungog council had an infrastructure backlog of $40 million, with residents facing significant rate rises.

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