€2.3m bill for trips to conferences
AN eye-watering €2.3m was spent last year to help councillors criss-cross the country to attend conferences on topics such as volcanic ash clouds, nuclear power and how to use Facebook and Twitter.
An Irish Independent investigation into the conference habits of councillors revealed:
• Five councillors from Donegal travelled to Wexford for a conference on local government budgets, even though an almost identically titled seminar was taking place in Letterkenny the very same weekend.
• A Wexford councillor travelled to the Letterkenny conference on the same weekend.
• Thirty-four councillors travelled from around the country to Co Cork for a conference titled 'Optimising Taxation Allowances and Benefits'.
• Sixteen attended a conference on 'Effective Representations through Radio, TV, Press, Facebook, Twitter'.
• A total of 112 councillors travelled to Glenties, Co Donegal -- 15 from Co Kerry alone -- for the annual political junkies' convention at the MacGill Summer School.
The investigation also found that Clare County Council spent the most on conference attendance of any local authority, forking out €120,595 on 251 separate trips by councillors in 2011.
Some 15 of its councillors travelled to conferences held by the Nuclear Free Local Authorities organisation in Newry and Wexford, at a cost of more than €8,000.
Cork County Council wasn't far behind in its expenditure, with local representatives' conference-going costing taxpayers €120,516.
In November 2011, five members of Donegal County Council travelled to Bunclody, Co Wexford, for a conference called 'Training Seminar for Councillors: The Local Government Budget 2012'.
The same weekend, November 18 to 20, the Silver Tassie Hotel in Letterkenny was hosting a similar conference called 'Local Governance Training Seminar: Local Authority Budgets 2012', which was attended by Wexford councillor Michael Kinsella.
Asked why he chose to travel to Donegal when a similar conference was taking place in his own county, Mr Kinsella said: "I can honestly say I didn't know there was one in Bunclody."
He said he "certainly" would have attended the closer conference to save money if he'd known it was on.
One of the Donegal representatives who travelled to Bunclody -- Fine Gael's Cllr John Ryan -- also said he wasn't aware that a similar conference was being held in his own county.
Asked why the five councillors from Donegal didn't at least car-pool to go to the Co Wexford event, he replied: "That's a very good question", but said he hadn't known which other councillors were travelling.
He said: "There are anomalies with the way people go about the country to go to conferences. I think the system is fundamentally flawed."
The cost of the Donegal councillors' trip came to €3,031, including mileage expenses.
Labour councillor Frank McBrearty defended the trip.
"It was actually the best conference I was ever at. The speaker was an absolute wealth of knowledge," he said.
"I've been to a number of conferences that weren't a benefit, I'm being honest about it, but that was definitely a very, very good conference."
He denied travelling to Wexford to maximise his mileage claims, as did Cllr Michael McBride.
He said: "I felt that the agenda (of the conference in Bunclody) was more beneficial to me. That's the reason I went there and I stand over it."
Cllr Barry O'Neill said that to date he had not claimed any travel expenses for the trip, while Cllr Michael Doherty did not respond to attempts to contact him.
Many of the conferences are organised by companies with links to sitting or former politicians.
Seamus Walsh, a Fianna Fail councillor on Galway County Council, is a director of Esperanza Enterprises.
Last year, it organised conferences on subjects as diverse as planning, European law on human rights, local government reform, renewable energy, public sector expenditure and health and safety.
Niall Dennehy, a former Fianna Fail councillor in South Tipperary and Clonmel Borough Council until 1999, is a director of Kadenza Consultancies.
Among the conferences it organised last year was one on 'Effective Representations through Radio, TV, Press, Facebook, Twitter' in Letterkenny, which cost €145 to attend.