LIBBY Dingle lost husband Geoff to cancer three weeks ago, but he's with her in spirit as she challenges Port Stephens Council to make public the cost of a years-long drainage court fight, and the millions of dollars yet to be spent after the council lost.
Before a memorial service next week Mrs Dingle spoke about the personal price her husband paid for opposing the council's handling of the Lagoons estate court battle, and the ugly anonymous smear campaign against him when he stood for mayor in 2017.
"I'm speaking in honour of Geoff. He would be speaking on this if he was here," said Mrs Dingle.
Geoff Dingle fought for 15 years against his council's refusal to fix drainage that directed significant volumes of water to the Nelson Bay estate, and particularly after a judge's scathing criticism in 2006 of the council's "stark" negligence and "signal disregard" for the estate owner.
"The court in 2006 ruled that the council didn't act in good faith. They're still not acting in good faith, and they're certainly keeping the community in the dark," Mrs Dingle said.
"What ratepayers are entitled to know is how council's going to pay for this. What services are going to be cut? What are ratepayers going to miss out on because of what they have to pay on this? What are they going to do to stop water from entering the estate and how much is that going to cost?"
The council has until December to comply with a 2006 court order that it stop water beyond the "natural flow" from entering the Lagoons estate off council roads and a nearby council-developed housing estate.
Alternative drainage proposals to comply with the order, prepared a number of years ago and seen by the Newcastle Herald, range from a least expensive option of a rising main to the marina at $3.3 million, through to gravity trunk drainage to the marina costed at $13 million, and a $36 million most expensive option involving submersible pumps.
The council has already agreed to pay Lagoons estate owner David Vitnell more than $2 million in legal costs and damages, more than 18 months after it agreed to court orders in May, 2018 acknowledging it had not complied with the 2006 court order requiring the drainage works.
In May, 2019 former Port Stephens mayor and current councillor John Nell said it was his "gut feeling" the Lagoons saga had cost the council $15 million to that date.
The council is yet to make a full statement outlining the likely full cost of the Lagoons saga since the original 2006 court action, and acknowledging it lost a court fight against Mr Vitnell that Mr Dingle urged the council against, in public and confidential meetings.
The council has not responded to questions about how much of the Lagoons saga is covered by insurance, but the Herald understands the failure to comply with the 2006 court order means insurance coverage is very limited.
"Geoff was an engineer. He knew they hadn't complied with the order in 2006. He told them the drainage works they did back then wouldn't work. They wouldn't listen. He could see how it was going to affect ratepayers. He could see that something that should have been fixed was just getting out of hand," Mrs Dingle said.
In the 2017 local government elections Mr Dingle, who was first elected to Port Stephens Council in 2004, stood for the position of mayor but not as a councillor.
In the week before the election an anonymous brochure headed "Can you trust this man" was distributed to homes across his ward, featuring photos of Mr Dingle, excerpts from a discredited code of conduct review report, and false and defamatory comments.
The brochure relied on the leaked discredited code of conduct report and asked: "Did you know this councillor took photos of children without permission? He is an angry man who actively opposes progress and opportunity."
The brochure falsely attributed the Herald with a quote that Mr Dingle "Failed to act properly, ethically, honestly and exercise a reasonable degree of care and diligence in carrying out his functions".
The false claims in the anonymous brochure were made despite the Office of Local Government strongly criticising the 2017 code of conduct report, finding there were no grounds for the allegations and findings against Mr Dingle, and advising the council to rescind it. The OLG found the conduct reviewer "compounded" a "deficiency" in the report by failing to consider Mr Dingle's responses.
"The codes of conduct cases against him really upset him. Then they were used in a most disgraceful letterbox drop," Mrs Dingle said.
Port Stephens businessman Des Maslen, who was also the subject of an anonymous brochure smear campaign before the 2017 election, said Mr Dingle was right to stand up to the council on the Lagoons estate, and Mrs Dingle was right to demand public accountability from the council about the loss and the cost to the community.
"We as a community deserve a lot better. The council now should put its hands up and say we made the wrong calls, we're only human, and this is what it's going to cost the community," Mr Maslen said.
"Instead we get silence."
Mr Maslen said he stood for council after watching Mr Dingle being "treated so badly".
"We campaigned for transparency and accountability in that council. Geoff's not here, but the culture in that council is still the same."
Mrs Dingle said her husband was "a very genuine person who believed in right".
"He believed in trying to right injustices for people," she said.
A memorial for Geoff Dingle will be held at The Greenhouse in Pacific Dunes Golf Course at 1.30pm on January 21.
Port Stephens Council did not respond to questions.