herald

Saturday 18 November 2017

So Councillor, what did you learn? THey claimed €250k for co nferences and all we get is a few scr ibbled notes

DUBLIN City councillors who jet off to foreign hotspots at the taxpayers' expense are not obliged to file a single report charting their progress, the Herald can reveal.

Thousands of euro from the council's dwindling budget was splashed out on foreign trips last year -- with councillors jetting off to the likes of China, USA, Poland and Hungary.

And the hard-pressed taxpayer has also footed the cost of dozens of conferences that took place in Ireland -- with the overall bill since 2009 totalling more than €250,000.

The Herald can today lay bare -- in the councillors' own words -- the shocking system which underlies conference travelling.

We can reveal that councillors have been submitting scribbled reports -- some no more than two sentences -- so that they receive their expenses cheques.



PURSE

And those who jet off to foreign locations, such as Beijing and San Jose, do not have to file a report at all despite being able to claim thousands of euro from the public purse.

A Herald investigation today reveals:

•Close to €2,500 has been designated for each of the city's public representatives for conference travel in 2012 despite the council's serious financial troubles.

•A list of locations is uploaded on an internal database with councillors then making their bookings through the council's 'Travel Desk'.

•Councillors can just submit two sentence reports on each conference which are not publicised for the public to view.

•There is no requirement on councillors who travel to foreign hotspots on official business to submit any report whatsoever, as the engagement is not technically classified as a "conference".

The Herald can today publish extracts from reports submitted by councillors who travelled to the large number of conferences held in Ireland last year.

The reports, which were released under the Freedom of Information Act, allow councillors to summarise their experiences and to make any recommendations to the council's protocol committee.

However the majority of the reports do not make any recommendations whatsoever, while others provide one- or two-word descriptions of the councillor's experience.

After a three-day visit to the Knightsbrook Hotel in Co Meath -- for a meeting of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland -- Fine Gael councillor Mary O'Shea submitted the following recommendation: "Useful opportunity to meet colleagues and address matters of common concern."

Cllr O'Shea clocked up expenses for the Meath visit of almost €450.

Sinn Fein's Larry O'Toole travelled to Tralee, Drogheda, Dundalk and Ravensdale -- without making a single recommendation. The four trips combined cost the taxpayer more than €1,600.

And Fine Gael's Declan Flanagan -- who travelled to more conferences than anybody else last year -- made recommendations ranging from "very worthwhile" and "very interesting" to "very relevant and informative".

Cllr Flanagan, brother of Fine Gael TD Terence Flanagan, went on seven trips in 2011 alone.

And the whole process of submitting a report appears to have confused some councillors.

On his report on a two-day economic seminar in Dundalk, Fine Gael's Cllr Pat Crimmins handwrote: "Less speakers but more interaction from the audience", when he in fact was expected to make a recommendation to the council protocol committee.

However what may prove infuriating for the public is the fact councillors who travel on foreign trips are not necessariliy obliged to file any reports whatsoever.

When asked why no reports carried out on visits to foreign countries were released, the council confirmed that these types of trips, such as twinnings, are not categorised as "conferences".



REQUIREMENT

The Herald revealed last week that one councillor -- Labour's Mary Freehill -- visited three continents in 2011 alone. In response to a number of queries by the Herald, a City Council official claimed that there is "no requirement" on councillors to file a long or detailed report.

"One of the uses of the report is for DCC management to judge whether conferences are suitable to be retained on the approved list of conferences that are suitable for councillors," the official said.

hnews@herald.ie

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