Ballarat will now only find out about international travel taken by City of Ballarat councillors once a year.
The new Councillor Expenses Entitlement Policy means the city’s CEO solely signs off on overseas trips, without it having to be considered as a separate item at a public council meeting.
The change was carried 5-4 at Wednesday night’s ordinary meeting. It was voted for by mayor Samantha McIntosh and councillors Ben Taylor, Mark Harris, Grant Tillett and Jim Rinaldi.
The only opportunity for scrutiny of councillor’s overseas travel will be trip proposals in annual budget documents.
The changes will take effect from May 3.
Cr Taylor, who moved the motion for the changes, said that interstate and international travel for councillors “wasn’t glamourous” and a necessary council function.
“Why do we bring international travel to council every single time? It slows the process down and it pushes the travel cost up higher, because a decision has to be made on a death knell,” he said.
According to the proposed changes, councillors attending professional development and training overseas must still get approval of council at a meeting for the cost of attending.
Councillor Des Hudson, who voted against the revised policy, said there was an expectation from the community to be upfront about international travel.
There will be times when the community don’t understand the role of overseas travel or just won’t be on board with it.Cr Des Hudson
He said it would cause “a bigger shock” if the public only found out about overseas travel deep in the council’s budget papers.
International travel has proved to be a contentious issue for City of Ballarat. Ratepayer backlash sprung up in September last year, when Cr McIntosh and chief executive Justine Linley attended a board meeting for the World League of Historical Cities (WLHC) in Bursa, Turkey.
More than $15,000 was spent on business class flights for the conference, although the policy states that travel should be at a premium economy class.
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Cr Tillett said in the council chamber on Wednesday night the “connotation is that people are queuing up to get a trip to the trough”, but that there had never been any evidence of Ballarat councillors rorting the system for travel.
In 2016, a WLHC trip to Vienna, Austria drew statewide media attention when council opted to send two councillors and a council officer to the WLHC conference. After robust debate in the council chamber, flights for the event were downgraded from business to premium economy.
The Courier reported a confidential document tabled to council for the June 2016 Austria trip recommended only one officer and one councillor be sent to the conference, however it was changed.
Cr Belinda Coates, who voted against the motion, said “in a rate capping environment things do need to be scrutinised closely.”
The new entitlements policy also removes the requirement for City of Ballarat to publish councillor expenses online each quarter.
In February this year, City of Ballarat was found to be in breach of its own policy, with expenses not updated online for two years.