VOTERS will not know how much Mornington Peninsula Shire councillors spent on expenses during the full current four-year council term before this weekend’s council elections.
The shire’s 11 councillors collectively spent $135,357 — about $100,000 more of ratepayers’ money on expenses compared to neighbouring Frankston and Kingston councils — over a 12-month period in the 2015-16 financial year.
The 11 shire councillors also spent about $150,000 more than 18 Frankston and Kingston councillors combined in 2014-15.
The shire previously pledged to publicly release all councillors’ expenses for the first two financial years of this four-year council term but has subsequently reneged on the promise to be transparent about expenses, supposedly budgeted at $16,000 per four-year term for each councillor.
In July and August, the shire said all councillor expenses would be included in the latest council annual report released last week. The expenses for 2012-13 and 2013-14, never previously released, were not included in the report.
“Council will release figures relating to council expenditure on training and conferences over the current term later this month,” shire chief financial officer Matt Green said in August.
When asked last week for councillor expenses figures, shire media communications manager Mark Kestigian said council governance manager Joe Spiteri decided the expenses figures could not be provided since caretaker provisions are in place before council elections.
Caretaker provisions – in force from 20 September until 22 October – mean councils must not make major policy decisions just before elections or produce material that could influence election outcomes.
The state government advised The News that providing councillor expenses information does not breach the Local Government Act but individual councils can decide how to deal with caretaker provisions.
Neighbouring Frankston Council and Kingston councils have published details of all councillor expenses for each year of this four-year council term in their annual reports.
The shire annual report released last week reveals the shire’s 11 councillors spent a total of $135,357 on expenses in the 12 months of the 2015-16 financial year.
Frankston’s nine councillors spent $41,390 between them on expenses and Kingston’s nine councillors spent $29,073 during 2015-2016.
Mornington Peninsula Shire councillors adopted a new expenses policy in September after three meetings and bitter arguments about alleged councillors’ expenses overspending.
The shire obtained legal advice that placed doubt on council’s ability to force any councillor to repay any alleged overspend on a $16,000-a-term expenses limit, that seems to never have been enforced by council, in place during this council term.
Maddocks Lawyers advised that expenses approved by council were lawful, even if more than $4000 in a year and $16,000 within four years and council could not force repayment.
The expenses are separate to councillors’ $28,000 yearly remuneration; $85,000 for the mayor over a 12-month mayoral term.
A majority of councillors resolved in April to order Cr Antonella Celi to repay about $9000 of $28,520 paid by the shire for attending conferences and seminars but that decision was reversed in May.
Councillors decided last month future councillors can nominally spend up to $30,000 on expenses – up from the previous $16,000 limit – over four years. Travel expenses, petrol expenses, child care fees, ‘information and communication expenses’ and training and conference attendance fees can be claimed by councillors.
The shire’s refusal to release full term expenses figures for any councillor means the full expenses for Crs Celi (Seawinds ward), Hugh Fraser (Nepean ward) and David Garnock (Cerberus ward) – the only four of the 11 existing councillors seeking re-election – will not be known before ratepayers cast their votes.
Mornington Peninsula Shire councillors collectively spent $221,666 in 2014-15, the only other year in this council term that councillor expense figures were published by council.
Frankston and Kingston councillors spent $41,390 and $32,162 respectively on expenses over the same 2014-15 period.
Cr Fraser, Cr Garnock and Cr Colomb told The News as far as they are aware councillors were never notified by council if they were near or over the limit of any expenses spending limit.
Cr Celi’s expenses totalled $62,727 over the two years’ figures available, Cr Fraser’s expenses were $45,555, Cr Garnock’s $45,075 and Cr Colomb’s $29,431.
Both Cr Celi and Cr Colomb were mayor for parts of the latest two years of the council term and mayoral expenses are often higher than councillor expenses due to the higher number of public events attended.