City of Ballarat councillors are furious after details of an extended international trip were only revealed days before mayor Samantha McIntosh was set to leave.
Cr McIntosh left for the more than two week trip on Sunday night, which will include time spent in Paris, the French city of Douai, the English county of Cornwall, and cities Bath and Slough. She will attend the World Conference of Historical Cities on September 7 to 9 in Bursa, Turkey.
City of Ballarat chief executive officer Justine Linley said the city would cover all expenses except for accommodation in Turkey and the conference, expected to total $6,000. A council officer will also be funded by the city to accompany Cr McIntosh on parts of the trip, before attending the conference.
A number of City of Ballarat councillors confirmed to The Courier they only received detail of the extent of travel late on Friday.
Councillor Des Hudson said he was “bitterly disappointed” in the decision not to discuss the extended trip openly in council chambers, and that details were withheld until the last minute, which he said “shows a lack of wanting to be transparent about it”.
“I would be surprised if it has the support of majority of councillors, it seems extravagant and overkill,” he said.
Ms Linley said she believed councillors had been “completely kept informed” of the trip, despite plans not being locked down until Friday. She said Ballarat “was grappling with heritage issues” in a population boom, and European cities could guide council on how to capitalise on the change.
It follows a council decision in May to allow all international travel to be signed off solely by the CEO, without having to go to a public council vote. It was approved 5-4, with Crs McIntosh, Ben Taylor, Mark Harris, Grant Tillett and Jim Rinaldi voting for the change.
Cr McIntosh will meet with the Australian ambassador to France in Paris, to understand ‘popular under and above ground key tourism drivers’, according to a media release, before heading to the city of Douai in northern France to visit the Musée de la Chartreuse and discuss future art collection exchanges.
“We’re grappling with … expanding built-form and business and we don’t want to make any mistakes, so to learn from others, but also promote Ballarat and the opportunities we have here is a two-fold reason for participating,” Ms Linley said.
In Slough, municipal representatives will tour a waste to energy facility which linked to a Mars Confectionary factory, to understand how Ballarat’s potential $300 million plant would function near an urban population.
One of the components I’m comfortable with is investigation of waste to energy, which has long been on the bucket list of council ... But other pieces just look a bucket list of holiday destinations.Cr Des Hudson
Cr Belinda Coates said the vote to put decision-making behind closed doors had become “really significant” in this case, and plans being shared so late was “galling” transparency-wise.
“Community expectation is that there scrutiny applied to these sorts of trips … it’s a big concern there was no indication of costs up front,” she said.
Cr Taylor defended the move, stating it was important to “think of it on the business side of things, and instead of wasting time and energy, utilise the trip and have a look” at waste to energy and heritage assets.
“So many people say it’s just a junket and a holiday, but having traveled for work and internationally, it’s not fun,” he said.
The issue of international travel has been a rocky one for City of Ballarat. Last September, there was significant backlash to $15,000 business class flights for Cr McIntosh and Ms Linley to attend the World League of Historical Cities board meeting.
In 2016, a trip to Vienna, Austria drew statewide media attention when council opted to send two councillors and a council officer to a conference – despite confidential documents obtained by The Courier stating fewer representatives should have been sent.
Cr Daniel Moloney said he thought “it would be be a far better process to bring it into council, because it allows it to be discussed well in advance and helps people to understand”.
South Ward’s Cr Rinaldi said he had no problem with the trip and he believed Cr McIntosh was the “best person” to survey potential heritage advantages overseas, and “the value we get back, we can't measure”.
The Courier was unable to get in direct contact with Cr McIntosh before deadline. All councillors were approached for comment.