The Local Government Auditor has called into question expenditure of more than €48,000 by Clare county councillors attending three separate local authority conferences in 2009.
The Clare Champion has learned that Clare County Council was represented by 20 of the 32-member local authority at two of the conferences.
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.
Just nine members constitute a quorum for Clare County Council meetings so there were more than enough members in Donegal and Antrim should there have been need to meet in emergency session.
Reviewing Clare County Council’s expenditure on a variety of programmes in his 2009 annual report, auditor Thomas O’Callaghan has challenged the overall cost of attending three conferences.
He has called on the council to review the overall costs incurred by members attending these conferences to ascertain if value for money was obtained.
County manager Tom Coughlan said expenditure incurred on subsistence and travel for conferences was paid in accordance with agreed departmental rates. He noted the annual limit per member for attendance at conferences was reduced by then environment minister John Gormley from €8,500 to €4,700 since February 2010. Mayor of Clare Christy Curtin explained it was up to individual councillors to decide what conferences they want to attend to keep abreast of changes in legislation and local government.
While there is an onus on members to provide an individual report on the main points of the conference, they are not obliged to provide an overall comprehensive assessment for the corporate body.
Mayor Curtin said he had travelled 2,236 miles attending eight conferences, while conference fees totalled about €1,100 last year and stressed that mileage and overnight accommodation had to be incurred before expenses could be claimed.
Councillor John Crowe said conferences are run by a lot of community organisations that generate income to keep them going for over six months thanks to fees paid by councillors.
Councillor Martin Conway admitted he couldn’t defend the attendance of 20 councillors at a conference and called for a flat salary covering the cost of conferences and other expenses. He said the AMAI seminar was a good conference, which dealt with current and proposed legislation that councillors needed to be fully briefed on.
Asked about the tourism conference in Antrim, he said he spent seven days promoting Clare in the local media and only claimed for three nights, which resulted in a tourism spin-off for North Clare following the establishment of significant new links and relationships between the two locations.
Councillor Johnny Flynn, who hasn’t claimed any expenses since he was elected in 2004 and only received his basic pay allowance, believes his non-attendance at conferences hasn’t affected his performance as a councillor. He spent 25 years working in local government as an engineer and fire chief.
However, Councillor Flynn pointed out that a lot of councillors don’t come from a local authority background and need some training on policies and procedures. After declining to comment on what other councillors’ claimed in expenses, he noted that the overall allowance for an elected member and expenses needs to be looked at to ensure the public are getting good value for money.
“I live within walking distance of Clare County Council. Some councillors who have a round trip of 50 miles incur genuine expenses travelling to and from meetings and workshops,” he added.
Councillor Cathal Crowe said he felt it was important for councillors to attend the AMAI conference, which dealt with a lot of serious issues such as proposed changes in legislation and local government. He stressed new councillors need regular training and upskilling, like any profession, to ensure they are equipped to conduct their business in an efficient manner.
The 20 councillors claimed €15,415 for attending the AMAI Spring Seminar in Donegal included: Peter Considine, €786.11; Joe Cooney, €865.33; Cathal Crowe, €436.39; John Crowe, €983.77; Christy Curtin, €727.49; Pat Daly, €691.74; Pascal Fitzgerald, €886.11; Oliver Garry, €713.20; Bernard Hanrahan, €821.17; Patricia McCarthy, €724.89; PJ Kelly, €825; John McInerney, €775.83; Pat McMahon, €836.75; Brian Meaney, €582.05; Tony Mulcahy, €665.16; Richard Nagle, €823.78; Tony O’Brien, €862.74; Sonny Scanlan, €671.71; Madeleine Taylor-Quinn, €893.90 and Colm Wiley €815.97.