Wednesday 26 November 2014

It's astonishing nobody made call to cut conferences despite squeeze on finances

Published 02/06/2014 | 02:30

IT seems astonishing that in a time of recession, our city and county councillors never saw fit to call a halt to the spending on conferences and 'training'.

Instead of keeping libraries open, some elected members felt money was better spent learning how to use basic IT programmes.

As road maintenance budgets were falling, councillors were travelling across the country on the crumbling network to talk shop with their colleagues.

When disabled grants for housing were being axed, there was a cohort who felt they were entitled to spend public money on "pointless" and "ineffective" conferences which taught them nothing about running local government.

It's a pretty cynical attitude to public service.

As this newspaper has repeatedly highlighted, there has been a long-standing problem around the spending of our money by local councillors.

In 2012 and 2013, they claimed €52m in salary and expenses – €3m of this was on conferences.

Although legally required to file reports on proceedings – so their colleagues could share in the learning curve – some were embarrassingly brief, often merely repeating the conference programme.

It may be unfair to tar them all with the same brush, but there's no doubt that some were more interested in lining their own pockets and bumping up their income than doing what was best for their constituents.

Councillors must decide the annual budget every year, and the process involves huge amounts of horse-trading where debate ensues as to whether it's better to spend money on library books or new sports pitches.

What perhaps tells the story of Irish politics is that no local authority ever eliminated the practice of conference expenses entirely, despite the bulk being technically insolvent, relying on borrowings and overdrafts, and crippled with cuts in government funding.

There was a perfect opportunity to make political hay by suspending the payments, in all but the most rare cases, but they missed this opportunity.

There has been a lack of control, and lack of political vision, around the issue.

The sense of entitlement has left people, rightly, angry and cynical about our political system.

Some may argue that €3m is small beer, but it's missing the point.

At a time when every penny counts, it would have been welcome to see some leadership.

The fluctuating issue of mayoral payments is a nonsense.

Clarity is welcomed in this area.

Anyone who feels hard done by can simply decide not to serve. Plenty will step up to the mark.

It's a pity that it's come to the point where Government has to step in. For that, it should be commended.

However, our elected members should have done themselves a favour a long time ago by getting their priorities in order and ending the rotten system.

Irish Independent

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