Ninety-two per cent of Guyra residents want to split from Armidale Regional Council, according to a citizen-initiated survey held by the pro-demerger Save and Grow Guyra Group on election day.
While the group has claimed overwhelming support, others are sceptical of the result.
"It was a vindication of what we had suspected, and totally reinforced what the community said all along," member Beth White said.
"A politician would call this a mandate; we're not politicians, so our responsibility is to react to the expression of the will of the people... We are overwhelmed by this result being so positive, and so we're going to progress very carefully, thoughtfully, and steadily in the direction that this mandate gives us."
But mayor Simon Murray and Guyra's last mayor Hans Hietbrink doubt the validity of the poll.
"I don't think much of the results," Cr Murray said. "They tried, but I just don't see the value in the information they're providing. It's not a true reflection, because of the inaccuracies of collecting the data and presenting it."
Mr Hietbrink called it a farce.
"The whole thing is quite invalid," he said; "I would take no notice of the results of that poll at all."
Voters were asked to vote yes or no to the question: "I support the de-merger of Armidale Regional Council to re-establish a Guyra Shire council".
The Save and Grow Guyra Group claims that 89 per cent of Ben Lomond, Black Mountain, Ebor, Guyra, and Tingha residents voted in favour of demerger, and 9 per cent against, with only 2 per cent informal.
"The result of the poll has clearly demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of the Guyra community want their local poll back," the group said.
The figures Save and Grow Guyra provided are based on 1206 votes in the five towns:
- Ben Lomond: yes: 66 (71%), no: 17; informal: 10; total votes: 93; 106 election voters; 87.7% of election voters
- Black Mountain: yes: 96 (80.7%); no: 19; informal; 4; total votes: 119; 185 election voters; 64.3% of election voters
- Ebor: yes: 26 (89.7%); no: 3; total votes: 29; 100 election voters; 29% of election voters
- Guyra: yes: 693 (92%); no: 48; informal: 12; total votes: 753; 1215 election voters; 62% of election voters
- Tingha: yes: 191 (90.1%); no: 21; total votes: 212; 367 election voters; 57.8% of election voters
- Total: yes: 1072 (88.9%); no: 108; informal: 26; total votes: 1206; 1973 election voters; 61.1% of election voters
"The results as they're portrayed are totally inaccurate," Cr Murray said. "The yeses and noes should be based on the number of people who voted, not just adding up the yes/nos and proportioning it. When you compare it to the number of people who voted, it's a totally different number."
These figures are less impressive when the number of "yes" votes is divided by the number of election voters, as Cr Murray suggests:
- Ben Lomond: 62.3% (down from 71%)
- Black Mountain: 51.9% (down from 80.7%)
- Ebor: 26% (down from 89.7%)
- Guyra: 57% (down from 92%)
- Tingha: 52% (down from 90.1%)
- Total: 54% (down from 88.9%)
Save and Grow Guyra Group said it missed some of the people who pre-polled, or voted online or by post. They state, though, that if anyone set out to undermine the credibility of the result by non-participation, that is on their conscience, but by no means stymies the result.
"I think people would be suspicious of anyone who got a result like that that they wouldn't like, or didn't expect," Mrs White said. "We were being very scrupulous to make sure it was as good a process as it possibly could be."
How the poll was conducted
Save and Grow Guyra members collected the papers outside five election booths in former Guyra Shire towns on Saturday.
"The process of taking a poll as people left the state election booth was the best measure available to us," Mrs White said.
The votes were placed in locked and sealed boxes.
Six JPs - including Gala's Leonie Taylor and real estate agent Sue Ross - monitored the count and recount at the Gala office on Tuesday night. The breaking of the seals and the count were videotaped.
"Within the limits of the capacity to enable everyone to have a vote, we did absolutely everything that we could," Mrs White said.
"We genuinely wanted to understand what the community of people felt. We wanted an honest answer, and I basically think we've got it. Our purpose could not have been met if the votes were rigged."
Others, however, questioned the results. Cr Murray thought the poll was not done very well, calling it "murky".
"The whole voting process wasn't scrutinised to make sure it was fair and accurate," he said.
Survey forms (four of them to a sheet) were posted to Guyra residents three weeks ago. Several residents, Cr Murray and Mr Hietbrink told us, had photocopied the forms, or submitted multiple votes, nor was there anything to stop their voting at more than one booth.
"It allows people to put in multiple votes, and the minute you do that, whichever way the result goes, it's not a valid poll," Mr Hietbrink said.
Save and Grow Guyra members, Mrs White responded, manned the booths to give everyone a chance to vote once. In the process, they looked for an emblem on the reverse side, or sought an explanation. Scrutineers were advised not to enter into debate, but to note any inconsistencies.
The votes, Cr Murray and Mr Hietbrink said, were not limited to residents of the former Guyra Shire, nor were names checked off a roll; Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall and a journalist covering the election, both of whom live in Armidale, were handed forms outside the polling booth on election day, and asked to vote.
"They should have been a lot more stringent on getting only people from the old Guyra shire to do it," Cr Murray said. "If you're being really sceptical, how many of those votes are from people outside Guyra? Unknown."
Mrs White responded that scrutineers asked about voters' status as Guyra residents, and advised non-residents of their ineligibility to record a vote. Where made aware of a breach, they accounted for that in their processes, she said.
Others have complained that they were harassed when they tried to vote against a demerger, even though Mrs White said that the vote was confidential, and "that were was no pressure from anyone to vote in a particular way".
Mrs White said that a person who submitted a letter to the Guyra Gazette could not remember or identify who it was that had offended her when asked.
"Personalities can offend - and if offence was taken, I am sure none was [intended]."
Cr Murray and Mr Hietbrink doubted whether the survey truly represented the view of most residents. Many people they talked to were not in favour of the demerger; council, far from taking away services, had increased them. Several residents had refused to submit the forms.
"The majority of people that I speak to are quite content to put their effort into making Guyra grow, but not necessarily away from Armidale Regional Council," Mr Hietbrink said.
Mrs White noted that it was commonplace for surprise results to be challenged on the sporting field and in parliamentary circles, so she was not surprised to see claims and counter claims by questions of validity.
"It is disappointing but not surprising that people of former 'higher office' so readily dismiss this expression by regular citizens," she said. "Go back to the initial vote before Guyra was amalgamated, and the position of Guyra residents was clear, the commitment of the elected was clear, but the elected went back on their word. Despite having promised no forced mergers, we still found out that they reneged and here we are asking: Are the changes enough to make you change your mind?"
The Save and Grow Guyra group also claim that 90 per cent of Tingha residents (212 votes out of a population of 800-odd) would rather join a reformed Guyra Shire than go to either Armidale or Inverell.
Tingha Citizens' Group president Colleen Graham said she was very surprised.
"We did the poll; and I don't know where he gets his 90 per cent from," she said. "We had more than 400 signatures - actual signatures, not just a cross on a paper."
The council poll, Cr Murray said, showed that 67 per cent of people wanted to go to Inverell; Tingha people, as a group, do not want to come back this way.