Residents of Durham have given the thumbs down to a county council-backed plan for the creation of a single unitary authority.
A postal referendum organised by the region's seven district councils returned a 76% "no" vote, with 40% of electors taking part.
The councils say it is a vote of confidence for their alternative bid.
However, the county council has branded the poll a waste of money, saying the ballot itself was biased.
The referendum was commissioned by the local authorities in Chester-le-Street, Derwentside, Easington, Sedgefield, Teesdale, Wear Valley and Durham City.
They had submitted a "Pathfinder to Unitary" bid, which called on several development stages and improvement initiatives leading eventually to unitary status.
But this was rejected in March when the Department of Communities and Local Government said it would only consider the county council's unitary proposal.
Alan Napier, leader of District of Easington Council, said: "It is clear from both the turn out and voting preference that our residents value their local services and we are of course delighted with this massive vote of confidence.
"We want to make it plain to the government that their plans are not acceptable to the people we serve."
However, the leader of Durham County Council said the result was tainted because the leaflet sent out with the voting paper was biased in favour of the district councils' option.
Albert Nugent added: "The poll has produced a result that is nothing more than a red herring, and has not taken the debate about local government reorganisation a single step further forward."