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Saturday 23 September 2017

More than €3m spent on courses and conferences

Labour councillor Aine Clancy. Picture: James Horan/Collins
Labour councillor Aine Clancy. Picture: James Horan/Collins

Shane Phelan and Paul Melia

MORE than €3m was spent sending city and county councillors to conferences and meetings around the country – including All-Ireland matches, management seminars and courses on how to use social media.

The spend includes payments made to councillors sent on junkets, despite the fact that their local authorities were technically insolvent and reliant on overdrafts and bank borrowings to meet day-to-day expenses.

A report from the Local Government Auditor shows that 20 of the country's 34 councils are operating in the red, including Sligo County Council – which spent €167,000 in 2012 and 2013 on conferences, despite running a deficit of €15m.

The council maintained so-called "conference allowances" for councillors even though it has had to "effectively eliminate" all discretionary spending and is struggling to meet its statutory obligations to maintain services.

Councillors can claim mileage and overnight expenses for attending conferences, while the fee for entry to the event is also covered.

Most councils allow each councillor a budget of up to €4,700 to attend conferences and in the majority of cases the entire allocation is spent.

As well as representing their councils, elected members can also attend conferences on behalf of eight regional authorities and two regional assemblies, bodies which monitor the spending and delivery of EU structural funds.

However, the vast bulk of conference spending is accounted for by local authorities, with almost €2.7m spent by councils in the past two years.

Regional authorities and assemblies account for some €320,000.

Among the conferences attended include seminars on the local property tax, policy and legal issues surrounding wind farm developments, standards for rented housing and financing services in local authorities.

However, records released under freedom of information rules also show that many conferences bear little or no relation to the duties performed by local politicians.

WASTE

They include a €578 spend on a "personal development" conference by Wicklow councillor Irene Winters (FG), another €240 on a radio presenter course by Dublin City's Aine Clancy (Labour) and a €618 on "mastering the art of secure communication" by Meath's Joseph Bonner (Independent).

Other conferences attended during the two-year period studied include a seminar on succession and inheritance, mind mapping, tax entitlements and reliefs; hurling, camogie and football matches; a 'guide to getting the right work done', and the Irish Film and TV awards.

Councillors from Westmeath, Limerick county, Clare, Carlow, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown and Cork city attended a conference in west Cork on social media, which has been sharply criticised by Cork city councillor Chris O'Leary (SF).

"The whole thing was ridiculous. Any teenager could have helped them set up a Facebook account," he said.

An analysis of conference records released under freedom of information rules by over 40 different local government bodies indicates that councillors frequently travel to conferences on the other side of the country, instead of in their local area.

Councillors in Cork who were members of the Southern and Eastern Regional Assembly attended conferences in Westport, Letterkenny and Cavan in the past two years.

Another Cork councillor, Labour's Michael Ahern, had his conference and travel expenses for attending a conference in Letterkenny blocked in a vote by the city council.

Mr Ahern denied his attendance at the 'Five-Week Countdown to Local Elections 2014' conference was a potential waste of taxpayers' money.

Meanwhile, Limerick city has been covering the €1,000-a-year tuition fees of independent councillor Pat Kennedy, who is studying for a diploma in genealogy studies at UCC.

Mr Kennedy said city manager Conn Murray had approved the spending on the course.

When asked what value his doing the course was to the taxpayer, Mr Kennedy said: "It was a very suitable and appropriate course for me to do. If the manager had thought otherwise, I would have done it out of my own resources."

The council also paid €2,700 in college fees for Fine Gael's Maria Byrne, who is studying for a degree in local government.

Ms Byrne said: "It is a degree that is very relevant to what I do as a local representative."

Irish Independent

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