LOCAL government is the third level of government in Australia, and the closest to the public it serves.
Local council buildings are one of the staple edifices we're used to seeing in our towns and suburbs, along with the local police station and the hospital.
Because it is a level of government, the operation of our local councils includes elected representatives, who act in some respects as a council's board of management, providing the framework within which executive staff conduct the council's operations.
When councils are operating well they deliver the services wanted and needed by a community. Members of the public can speak with their elected representatives, who can raise issues with the council on their behalf. Councillors can vote on issues according to their own assessment of information, with input from their communities.
That's the theory at least.
Local government, like state and federal governments, are required to be open, accountable and transparent in their dealings, with the overall responsibility to act in the public interest.
But things can and do go wrong.
In 2016 Port Stephens Council defended a claim by Nelson Bay developer and solicitor David Vitnell over a drainage issue at Mr Vitnell's Lagoons estate. Mr Vitnell bought the estate, which is partly developed, from a previous owner who had his own problems with the council over the drainage.
In 2006 the council was ordered by a court to complete drainage works to stop stormwater from an estate it developed beside the Lagoons estate from being directed on to Lagoons. The council spent at least several millions dollars doing work it thought would comply with the order. It spent more - and the figure is yet to be revealed by the council - fending off a claim from the previous owner after the drainage work failed, and even more after Mr Vitnell lodged his claim.
Throughout the years of the saga the late former Port Stephens councillor, Geoff Dingle, an engineer, urged the council to sort the mess out, do the required work and cut potential losses. He was strongly criticised for taking that stand, but he was right, as we now know.
Port Stephens Council has a responsibility to ratepayers to acknowledge it was wrong, disclose the full cost so far and for the works that must be done. It's time.