FOLLOWING months of accusations and claims of accounting inaccuracies and overspending, Mornington Peninsula Shire councillors are struggling to agree on the definition of expenses.
The expenses are separate to councillors’ $28,000 yearly remuneration; $85,000 for the mayor.
Shire officers last Monday asked for an extra month to prepare a draft of the councillor expenses policy by 31 August.
Legal advice in March cast doubt on the validity of a previous policy which limited each councillor to spending up to $4000 a year on such things as conferences, seminars and courses, giving a total $16,000 over a four-year term.
Included in the issues the new policy is attempting to clarify are the definition of “delegate expenditure”, “professional development” and “entertainment” (with no alcohol); setting “allowable expenditure”; and setting mileage payments (at the moment councillors can claim $1.07 a kilometre for a six-cylinder vehicle but the Australian Taxation Office limit is 66 cents).
Maddocks Lawyers advised that expenses approved by council were lawful, even if they exceeded $4000 in a year and $16,000 within four years and council could not force repayment.
The shire has repeatedly refused requests by The News for up to date figures on spending by individual councillors, saying only that they will be available in the next annual report.
Controversy around councillor expenses came to a head earlier this year when councillors were given a table outlining their individual expenses up to the end of January.
According to a table included in a councillor briefing, two councillors were over the $16,000 expenses entitlement: Cr Antonella Celi by $14,810 and Cr David Gibb, $3147 over.
Chief financial officer Matt Hubbard said the extra expenses incurred by Crs Celi and Gibb had been approved by “council resolution” for them to attend “additional professional education programs governed by examinations”.
He said this type of spending was available to all councillors.
However, some councillors disputed the accuracy of the figures.
On 26 April Cr Hugh Fraser successfully moved a motion that “[shire] management requires Cr Celi to pay to council by 10 September 2016 any sum in excess of the sum of $19,500 on Cr Celi’s conferences and seminars account in the books of the council incurred over the current term of the council”.
The motion – backed by Crs Fraser, Tim Wood, Lynn Bowden, Tim Rodgers and Graham Pittock and opposed by Crs Gibb, David Garnock, Bev Colomb, Andrew Dixon and Anne Shaw – came six weeks after Maddocks Lawyers had cast doubt on council being able to force repayment.
“Given that council has previously approved those expenses, we do not think that there would be any legal avenue open to council to now compel their repayment,” the legal advice stated.
“The most that council can do … is to request that the relevant councillors repay the relevant expenses. It will then be for those councillors to decide whether they will.”
The nine-page advice also stated that there was nothing to prevent council from approving expenditure above the $16,000 a year “limits”.
The shire has not made public the cost of the legal advice.
In a letter to shire CEO Carl Cowie this month Stuart Allen, of Dromana, who says he has two decades’ worth of experience as a consultant in the public service sector, expressed dismay and disillusionment that “underlying issues in the recent councillor expenses saga have not been fully published in an open and transparent way”.
From his perspective, the main issue was not Cr Celi’s obligation to repay but the “failures within the shire’s management and administrative processes that would allow such a basic discipline to be breached or compromised”.
Mr Stuart, while finding Cr Celi’s attitude “repugnant”, was none the less scathing about the legal advice which 19 times used the expression “we think” or “we do not think”.
While being disappointed by the legal advice he also criticised the instructions provided to Maddocks by shire staff as being “sadly lacking”. While Cr Celi would be judged by voters in her Seawinds Ward according to Mr Allen, “The shire’s management clearly comes out of this saga far more acrimoniously in the eyes of the shire community than Cr Celi”.
“Perhaps it is now an appropriate time to introduce a system whereby all councillors – irrespective of the amount involved – must provide details of the measurable benefits that the ratepayers of the Mornington Peninsula Shire will receive as a direct result of the councillor’s attendance and participation at the conference, seminar or training course,” Mr Allen stated in his letter to Mr Cowie. “I have seen first-hand how politicians use ‘study trips’ as a way of exploring ‘life’s opportunities’ post their parliamentary careers.
“Perhaps the level of jaundice that I hold toward many of our elected representatives at all levels of government makes me more cynical about the motives of the individual; are they truly altruistic in standing for council, or is it but a stepping stone toward greater political ambition/career enhancement?
“Perhaps if tighter controls and disciplines are placed on attendances at “beanfeast” type gatherings and the like, the potential for councillors to be far more transparent – and definitely more accountable – in the way that they use ratepayers’ funds will occur.”