Hunters Hill council will be led by an independent mayor after a nail-biting contest in which the Liberal candidate was rolled on preferences, after the party's campaign was hit by allegations it would pursue council mergers through backdoor channels once elected.
Independent candidate Mark Bennett was declared the new mayor on Wednesday, after the distribution of preferences put him ahead of Liberal Zac Miles, who won 40 per cent of the popular vote.
Cr Bennett, who won off the back of preferences from independent Ross Williams in the three-way race for mayor, said forced mergers were the "single largest issue this election" despite Hunters Hill being Liberal party heartland.
"I think the people in Hunters Hill are very aware of the issue because it was a threat to the community."
Premier Gladys Berejiklian abandoned the controversial proposed merger of Hunters Hill, Ryde and Lane Cove councils in July - along with six other proposed mergers of Sydney councils - after the government became mired in legal challenges brought by numerous councils.
But Cr Miles played down any suggestion his campaign had been hurt by the decision to run as an endorsed Liberal candidate, after the merger backlash against the state Liberal government.
"We won quite substantially in first past the post. The preference deal between the independents ended up being too strong for us to contend with."
It is the first time the Liberal party has run endorsed candidates in Hunters Hill.
Hunters Hill might be the smallest council in Sydney, but the mayoral race captured outsized attention against the backdrop of the NSW government's unsuccessful merger attempt.
The race even exercised the vocal chords of influential shock jock Alan Jones, who urged his listeners not to vote for Cr Miles on account of his connections with Liberal party powerbroker Joe Tannous.
Jones, citing an unnamed source, told his listeners: "Local government elections. There's two you can strike off your list. Zac Miles in Hunters Hill and Brigid Meney in Ryde.
"These branch stackers and factional hacks are now going to try this council amalgamation stuff through the back door."
Jones added: "Tannous you are on notice."
Cr Miles is a former partner at the lobbying firm Cornerstone Group, founded by Mr Tannous, who is influential in the NSW Liberal party's dominant left faction.
Ms Meney, who works as an associate at Cornerstone, ran on the Liberal ticket for Ryde council, following a bitter preselection battle that in which three incumbent Liberals were dumped from the ticket.
Cr Miles said there had been a "dishonest" campaign "pushed by certain people" that the Liberal candidates for both councils would attempt to revive the issue of a merger through inter-council negotiations if elected.
"There was an underhanded campaign to suggest that we were going to say one thing and do another, but it was very far from the truth," he said.
"We maintained our position of no forced amalgamations. The idea we were conspiring is untrue."
Both Cr Bennett and Cr Miles served on the previous Hunters Hill council. Cr Miles' strong result means he is guaranteed a spot on the council.
Due to NSW's system of preference allocation, the final results for the make-up of Hunters Hill and Ryde councils will not be known until Friday at the earliest.
The story 'Too strong to contend with': Lib loses nail-biting mayoral race first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.