How far do Mayo county councillors have to go to find a fact?
Analysis of the conference claims by Mayo councillors show many of them went to the four corners of the country while ignoring conferences closer to home
Edwin McGreal and Neill O’Neill
Liam Fay once asked pithily in The Sunday Times ‘how many Mayo councillors does it take to a find a fact’?
It was in reference to an expensive ‘fact-finding’ trip to Austria in 2007, which 25 county councillors from Mayo went on. The purpose of the trip was to investigate landslide fencing following landslides in north Mayo.
Analysis of the expenses claimed by Mayo county councillors for fact-finding conferences in Ireland for the year 2012 leads one to ask a similar question - how far does a Mayo councillor have to go to find a fact?
Few Mayo county councillors appear to be interested in attending any conference in the county, or even in Connacht.
With the mileage rate of €0.95 it is apparent that the location of a conference is much more pertinent than its subject for too many councillors, judging by the irrelevant nature of some of the conferences attended in faraway parts of the country.
Cllrs Gerry Coyle and Henry Kenny (both Fine Gael) are the only two that attended conferences in Mayo. Incredibly, out of the 25 councillors who claimed expenses for conferences attended last year, 17 of them went outside the province for every single one. Some of these, it must be said, only attended a small number of conferences, but they are in the minority.
Both Cllrs Coyle and Kenny attended, in Castlebar, a conference on ‘Renewable Energy - Revitalising Ireland’s Regions’. Its relevance seems apparent to this region, yet they were the only councillors present from Mayo County Council.
The closure of small, rural schools, is one of the emotive issues in County Mayo at the minute, and several marches took place against potential school closures last year. You would, therefore, think that a training seminar entitled ‘Education (Amendment) (Protection of Schools) Bill 2012’ over two days in Westport last August would have a decent number of Mayo county councillors attending. However, the figures released show not even one of them did.
‘Improving the Social Housing Stock’ was a two-day conference in Westport in July and with social housing being a core responsibility of Mayo County Council, you would assume it a worthwhile gig. But no councillor from Mayo County Council attended it either. That same week however, six Mayo councillors, Cllrs Tom Connolly, Blackie Gavin, Richard Finn, Austin Francis O’Malley, John O’Malley and Eddie Staunton, attended the Magill Summer School in Glenties, a 274-mile round trip from Castlebar.
Perhaps some councillors went to the Mayo-based conferences and didn’t claim expenses but this appears extremely unlikely. Cllr Peter Flynn submitted a lengthy proposal on Local Government Reform last year, where he referred to the system for councillors expenses as ‘a joke’.
“You need to look at the correlation between the location of the conference and where people live. It’s the way it’s set-up, to maximise the gain and supplement the income of councillors. It is crazy,” he told The Mayo News.
“A few years ago there was a Network Ireland conference in Westport, which included Denis O’Brien (billionaire Irish entrepreneur), David McWilliams (prominent economist) and Josephine Feehily (Chairperson of The Revenue Commissioners) as keynote speakers. I think there was five out of the 31 county councillors at the conference and it was a great conference and line-up, one of the best held in the country that year, but what does it say that so little councillors from Mayo attended it?,” he asked.
Tour of Ireland
All councillors receive a representational payment, varying from between €16,000 and €18,500, and also an annual allowance, based on how far they live, and therefore regularly have to travel to and from, the council chamber in Castlebar. This ranges from just over €5,000 to just over €10,000.
There are allowances for the council Cathaoirleach (close to €50,000 in 2012 alone)allowances for being Chairperson of the many Strategic Policy Committees or the County Development Board and a mobile phone allowance, which can be as high as €600. Councillors are allowed, on top of these amounts, up to €4,700 for conferences inside and outside Ireland. Eleven Mayo county councillors claimed over €3,000 in conference expenses in 2012.
A look at where the top three claimants for conferences in Ireland in 2012 travelled to, lends credence to Cllr Flynn’s assertion that it is more about supplementing income than ‘fact-finding’.
The top claimant was Fine Gael Cllr, Michael Burke, (€4,474.74) who went to Letterkenny, Dublin, Nenagh, Waterford, Killarney, Dublin, Gorey in Wexford, Rosscarbery in west Cork and New Ross in Wexford.
His party colleague, Cllr Johnny O’Malley, (€3,870.01) was the second highest after trips to Nenagh, Killarney, Waterford, Limerick, Glenties, Rathdrum in Wicklow and Letterkenny.
Third was another Fine Gael representative, Cllr Tom Connolly (€3,686.83) who travelled to Nenagh, Killarney, Waterford, Kilkenny, Limerick, Glenties in Donegal, Letterkenny and Bunclody in Wexford. Cllr Annie May Reape, Fianna Fáil, (€3,451.24) was fourth and the only one of the top six to attend a conference in Connacht (Galway).
Cllr Austin Francis O’Malley (€3,416.95) and Cllr Patsy O’Brien (€3,366.02) were fifth and sixth.
Some of more unusual conferences councillors went to include the European Cities Against Drugs 19th ECAD Mayors Conference in Killarney (Cllrs Michael Burke and Patsy O’Brien); ‘Mind Mapping and Efficient Reading Techniques’ in Rosscarbery, west Cork (Cllrs Eugene McCormack and Richard Finn).
Cllr Patsy O’Brien also made a trip to Rosscarbery to learn more about his party’s roots at a two night stay for the ‘Michael Collins and the Creation of Irish Democracy’ conference in October.
System to blame
However Cllr Peter Flynn, who attended only one conference in 2012, the Irish Planning Institute’s National Planning Conference in Kilkenny, does argue that it is the system rather than the councillors that are to blame.
“It’s the system that’s wrong, it is a way of supplementing income and the system needs to change. It shouldn’t be a system that people go to conferences, which happens, just to supplement their income. Councillors need to be encouraged to go to conferences that are worthwhile, where they can up-skill and enhance what they already know on important subjects and issues.
“Councillors cost less than €1 million it must be said, which isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, when you compare that with the total costs incurred from the salaries and expenses of council staff, as the council’s budget is €120 million,” he said, adding that every single expense incurred by local authority employees and councillors should be fully vouched.
It is an issue that remains as divisive as ever in Áras an Chontae.