Newcastle councillors are again mired in controversy amid claims a promotional photograph had to be retaken because Allan Robinson "inappropriately touched" lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes while it was being shot.
The incident occurred at the beginning of Tuesday's council meeting when all 13 councillors assembled in the City Hall chamber for a photograph promoting a national charter on how to communicate about suicide and mental health.
The Liberal and independent councillors reacted with outrage when the council's communications team later posted on the council's Facebook page a photograph taken later in the evening of just the Labor members and the Greens' John Mackenzie.
Cr Kath Elliott and Cr John Church, who are members of the Newcastle Independents alliance, said council staff had "played politics" during an election year and called on chief executive officer Jeremy Bath to resign.
Liberal councillor Brad Luke called on the staff member responsible to face "severe action".
"For them, for any reason, to substitute a photo of all councillors with a photo of only Labor and Greens councillors is a sign of extremely poor judgement in the administration and gives an impression of absolute political bias," he said.
Cr Luke said he was still in the building when the second photograph was taken without his knowledge.
"The blame of this could sit totally and completely with Jeremy Bath. Having dealt with many of the employees at the council for over a decade, I've found them normally to be very, very sensible and not allow themselves to be politicised. But what has occurred here is an extreme political situation."
Mr Bath said staff had decided at the end of the council meeting to retake the photograph after a complaint from deputy lord mayor Declan Clausen that Cr Nelmes had been "inappropriately touched".
"All councillors still in the chamber were asked to participate," Mr Bath said. "I was later contacted by councillor Brad Luke, who advised that he was still in the building at the time. As a result, I asked staff to remove the photo from the Facebook account."
Mr Bath did not name Cr Robinson as the person involved, but the original photographs and meeting webcast show the former jockey with his arm around Cr Nelmes' shoulder while the photograph is being taken.
Cr Nelmes and Cr Robinson have clashed in the chamber before, including during an unsavoury exchange in June last year when Cr Robinson referred to a female councillor as "Jessie the Elephant".
Cr Nelmes said at the time that Cr Robinson's "misogynistic" and "bullying" behaviour had affected her "personally and professionally".
Cr Robinson has also been accused of using homophobic language in the chamber against Cr Clausen, who on Thursday revived his calls for Cr Robinson to resign.
Cr Nelmes said on Thursday that it was "never OK to touch a woman without her permission".
"I have survived years of consistent workplace bullying. It's exhausting," she said.
"I know this councillor's behaviour is meant to intimidate me. It's been consistent, and grabbing me was no different to the abusive language that has been regularly directed at me since 2014.
"As he reached around me I just thought, 'Stay still and keep calm, don't show how uncomfortable you are, keep smiling and take the photo and it should be over soon.'"
She labelled Cr Robinson's behaviour a "political strategy" of his council allies to "intimate, discredit and cause me reputational harm".
She said the city's administration worked collaboratively with the council and "together we will continue on our path of progressive leadership that delivers for the people of Newcastle while the bullies and their allies scheme and harass in their own echo chamber".
Cr Robinson said he had placed his arm around Cr Nelmes' shoulder because the "lady taking the photo asked me to move in closer".
"It was for something important and she wanted a photo showing all the councillors supported it, so it was a happy group photo. I've never heard anything so childish in my f---ing life. I've been charged with everything in my life, but nothing towards a woman. I have nothing but respect."
Cr Church said the photograph was not "time sensitive" and asked why it had not been rescheduled if the first image was unsuitable.
"The credibility of council's massive communications team is now in tatters," he said. "Are they informing the public about council matters or just playing politics and actively trying to get the lord mayor re-elected?"
He regarded Cr Robinson's embrace of Cr Nelmes as a "sign of goodwill and unity around an important issue", but "if the lord mayor is sensitive to that, we need to respect that".