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Councillors are milking the system - Durcan

Councillors accused of ‘milking the system’

Durcan claims trips ‘a waste of time and money’

Edwin McGreal

Some Mayo County Councillors are going to conferences in the furthest reaches of Ireland in order to maximise how much mileage expenses they can claim, according to a council colleague.
That’s the belief of Castlebar-based Cllr Frank Durcan, who was speaking after the release of payments to councillors on Mayo County Council for 2011 last week.
That report showed a total payment to the 32 county councillors who served in 2011 of €897,093.54. That figure is broken down into various payments such as a salary, an annual allowance for travel, a mobile phone allowance and expenses for conferences in Ireland and for foreign travel.
The report shows a figure of €68,223.48 for expenses claimed by councillors for conferences in Ireland. A study of the breakdown of the various conferences attended by Mayo councillors reveals that many of the conferences attended were in places like Kerry, Cork, Donegal and Dublin - all significant distances from Mayo - and Cllr Durcan believes that this is so councillors can claim more mileage expenses, arguing that some councillors are milking the system.
“They are going for the long journeys to get more expenses,” he told The Mayo News. “And often what happens is two or three of them travel together in the one car and will claim as if they all drove there themselves. The system is completely open to abuse and in this day and age it is sinful and obscene to squander money when basic issues like roads and water supply in Mayo are so stretched and there’s massive unemployment.”
While some conferences took place in Galway and Mayo, 12 of the 32 councillors claimed expenses for five or more conferences, none of which was inside Connacht. Cllr Michael Burke, who was Cathaoirleach of the Council until June 2011, claimed for the most amount of conferences, with sixteen. Cllrs Blackie Gavin, Richard Finn and Johnny O’Malley all claimed for eight conferences, none of which were in Connacht. Cllr Margaret Adams claimed for ten - five of which were in Galway, while Cllr Annie May Reape claimed for eight conferences, four of which were in Connacht.
The Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery in West Cork saw a significant Mayo trade in 2011. The four star hotel hosted eleven Mayo councillors for a combined total of 36 nights for a variety of conferences.
Some of the conferences attended by Mayo councillors included an Irish language course in Gweedore, Co Donegal, a course in how to be an effective chairman in Rosscarbery, the 2011 Parnell Summer School in Wicklow and a practical guide to media skills for councillors, also in Rosscarbery.
Cllr Frank Durcan argues that the conferences are ‘a waste of time and money’.
“The people of Mayo never elected any councillor to go away to conferences. They elected them to deal with water issues, to get their roads done - the basics. There is no need for these conferences, they are a complete and utter waste of time and money.
“There is a severe lack of civic morality among people who hold public office in Ireland. Since Liam Cosgrave and Garret Fitzgerald left office, civic morality in Ireland has all but disappeared. The feeling there is ‘take as much as you can’.
“The councillors purport to know everything when they go for election and then they reckon they need to go to these conferences to learn basic stuff. All they need to do is read the Local Government Act from 2001. I never find it necessary to go to any conference and I think I’m as informed a councillor as there is in Mayo,” he added.
Cllr Michael Burke, who attended 350 functions in his year as Cathaoirleach of the council from June 2010 to June 2011, agrees that the conference system might need reform but has plenty of benefits for councillors.
“I do feel there is benefit in most of the conferences that I go to. The way the council operates is changing all the time and it is very important that the councillors are up to speed and can upskill. I don’t think anyone is on a gravy train by going to these conferences,” he told The Mayo News last night.
Cllr Burke argues that he felt it was his duty as Cathaoirleach to get around as much as possible, adding that he only claimed for one conference since his term in the chair finished last June.
With regard to car-pooling, he stated he had never done so in his life. He did add that there is room for improvement in how the system works.
“At the minute you only have to check-in at the start of a conference and not check-out at the end. Perhaps if people have to check-out as well, it can make more certain that councillors always attend,” he added.

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