MAKE COUNCILLOR EXPENSES TRANSPARENT

The decision to publish councillors’ expenses on the shire website is to be heartily commended – so long as the postings are open and transparent, frequent, and detailed. What is the point of making them public if they make no sense?

There was talk of putting up the figures monthly. It is to be hoped that is what occurs.

The new Councillor Expenses Reimbursement, Resources and Facilities Policy 2017, effective from 1 March, states that “Details of Councillor expenses will be published on the Mornington Peninsula Shire website and will also be reported by the State Government through the Local Government Performance Framework.”

But big changes are needed to the system that was in use for the last four-year council term. The councillor expenses recording system is (or was) close to a shambles.

Bandicoot has commented on this previously. Perhaps numbers man extraordinaire, shire CEO Carl Cowie, has instructed an Augean Stables revamp, meaning a new start to keeping the books.

Posting councillors’s expense claims in the form they were collated over the 2012-16 council quadrennium would make even the hardiest auditor flinch sharply and reach for the aspirin bottle.

Examples.

 On 1 August 2014 a councillor claimed $244 for “parking, travel, food, accommodation”. All four items were entered in the category “Parking & Travel”.

 On 21 May 2013 a claim of $92 was entered as “travel/parking” under the category “Sundry Expenses”. Why, Bandicoot wonders, was it not entered under the Parking & Travel category?

 Curiously and illogically, the “Sundry Expenses” account records on 10 October 2014 a claim for $214.70, described as “Travel”. Again, why was it entered there when the councillor had a Parking & Travel” category?

 On 29 January that year $130.73 appeared in “Sundry Expenses” as – hallelujah! – “Sundry”.

Bandicoot could go on, and on. And on again, ad nauseum, ad infinitum, ad abstractum. Even at the Old Coot’s level of book keeping, this system is (or was) clearly a disorganised calamity. One would be tempted to conclude the astonishing randomness of the official record was designed to confuse, obfuscate – even obnubilate – and confound openness and transparency.

But surely not. Surely it has now been overhauled so that even Bandicoot and scholars at their secondary school Economics studies will not give it a fail.

The accounts categories are (were, one hopes) not even common across councillors. One had an expenses category headed “Meetings/Events”. Several spreadsheets have an “Internal Expenditure” category; another, a “Subscriptions & Memberships” category, which appears to have been unique. Sundries are popular, as are Travel & Parking. The recording of some councillors’ expenses are close to orderly, a shining example for others. (Below – extract of legal advice obtained on councillor spending.)

Expenses1 - MaddocksClaims made by councillors are instructive. The smallest sum spotted – hardly worth claiming, Bandicoot thought – was $3.64 for Parking & Travel. The same councillor claimed for an unspecified expense of $4.54; another claim was $5.35 for “petty cash”.

Look after the pennies…

Councillor expenses became a hot topic when, about a year ago, leaked shire figures indicated two councillors had overspent their allowances. Hasty revisions cleared one; the other was unable to get the figure under the limit, or anywhere near it.

Councillors ordered that the overspend be repaid. A legal opinion was sought and, in controversial circumstances (to which Bandicoot will return in due course), council was advised there had been no overspend and, even if there had been, the councillor was not obliged to repay it.

The matter ended when the councillor’s factional colleagues, in possession of the numbers after a soell in the wilderness, passed a resolution that there had been no overspend. Soon after CEO Cowie stated at a council meeting that this was also his view.

Mighty indeed is the power of a democratic vote!

Regular publication of councillors’ expenses could well be an inhibiting factor on profligacy. If, for example, lots of small unspecified “petty cash” amounts were to appear, ratepayers might start asking relevant questions.

Bandicoot wonders what details will be published, and in what form. It is to be hoped ratepayers will not be presented with a lump sum, as meaningless as the shire can make it.

Over the next four years ratepayers will – properly, under the new expenses policy – be paying child care allowances to a number of councillors, at rates from $31 to $53 an hour. Over the past four years only one councillor was claiming this expense, which ran to many thousands of dollars.

Bandicoot understands some of the new councillors are robustly fecund and the shire child care bill will thus rise. But not excessively, it is to be hoped, especially since payment for nannies has been introduced this year (no hourly rates specified) and since child care claims are not capped. Stay on good terms with your partners, mums and dads, for the sake of your voters!

Perhaps, to impose a degree of rectitude into the expenses area, spot audits could be done from time to time, with a view to reminding any councillors who need such an aide-memoire – Bandicoot is confident none will – that it is ratepayers’ money you are claiming, money that could otherwise be spent on your urgent projects.

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