Expenses totalling €12,329 were incurred by 20 Clare county councillors for their attendance at a training conference in Donegal last year.
Councillor Gerry Flynn, who did not claim any of his statutory annual training allowance of €3,300, has called on the Government to provide in-house upskilling for councillors at local level, to eliminate the need to travel to the four corners of the country.
His call came after almost three-quarters of the 28 elected members travelled up to Buncrana for the Association of Irish Local Government (AILG) conference on May 5 and 6 of last year.
Councillors Michael Begley, James Breen, Pat Burke, Bill Chambers, Clare Colleran-Molloy, Joe Cooney, John Crowe, Christy Curtin, Pat Daly, Pat Hayes, Michael Hillery, Gabriel Keating, PJ Kelly, Pat McMahon, Paul Murphy, Richard Nagle, Tony O’Brien, PJ Ryan and Bill Slattery each made the round trip of 672 kilometres.
They received payments ranging from €453 for Councillor Christy Curtin to €680 for Councillor Bill Chambers, which translated into an average of €616 per councillor.
Six weeks later, eight councillors – Bill Chambers, Clare Colleran-Molloy, Gabriel Keating, Ann Norton, Tony O’Brien, Alan O’Callaghan, PJ Ryan and Bill Slattery – received payments totalling almost €4,000, or €495 per councillor, to attend AILG training for elected members in Dundalk, County Louth.
As one of the full-time council members, Gerry Flynn said he doesn’t know how some of his colleagues find the time to travel to the other side of the country to attend a seminar.
The Shannon-based councillor called on the Government to put the necessary resources in place to assist local authorities, such as Clare County Council, to provide in-house training.
Clare cathaoirleach Bill Chambers pointed out that councillors’ expenses claims include a conference fee of about €200.
Councillor Chambers said local authority associations, such as AILG, rely on conference and councillor membership fees as vital revenue sources to remain viable.
It is possible that the local government auditor could question this expenditure in a future audit. This auditor has previously called into question expenditure of more than €48,000 by county councillors in attending three separate local authority conferences in 2009.
Twenty councillors claimed €15,415 for attending the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland (AMAI) spring seminar in Donegal Town, while the same number collected almost €16,000 for their presence at a tourism conference in Antrim that year.
Reviewing the council’s expenditure on a variety of programmes in his 2009 annual report, auditor Thomas O’Callaghan previously challenged the overall cost of attending three conferences.
At the time he called on the council to review the overall costs incurred by members attending these conferences, to ascertain if value for money was obtained.
Commenting on the Buncrana trip, Councillor Pat McMahon said the Government had changed training conferences for councillors, to bring them in line with EU requirements.
“Laws are being introduced by national governments and the EU all the time and there are different interpretations of these. I remember I couldn’t attend one meeting because I was out of the country and I got three different interpretations from colleagues about one issue discussed at the conference.
“I found I had to go to conferences and make up my own mind. It was the government and the environment minister who brought in all these training conferences for councillors; we had no role or say in this at all.
“There is also a comprehensive question and answer session at all these conferences. Sometimes questions are asked that you would have an interest in and you can also ask your own individual question,” he added.
By Dan Danaher