Cities as far-flung as Krakow in Poland, Bath in England, Bursa in Turkey, Auckland in New Zealand, Vienna in Austria, Kyoto in Japan, and Paris have received visits from City of Ballarat representatives in the past four years, all at ratepayer expense.
What is the return to the residents of Ballarat on these trips? Former mayor Cr Samantha McIntosh, who has made the vast majority of overseas sojourns on behalf of council, has regularly argued the benefit to Ballarat is tangible.
Cr McIntosh's overseas expenses are formidable, but she defends them vociferously. In the figures supplied to The Courier under Freedom of Information, they total $26,498.33, including airfares and accommodation, over the term of council. These costs include sundry expenses held over from a controversial trip to Vienna with then-mayor Cr Des Hudson in early 2016.
"To be honest, I'm quite tired of going over this," Cr McIntosh told The Courier.
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"How many times is this now? Four times? I've said this before: I hate wasting money, and I try to make sure everything I do when I'm at these conferences is about putting Ballarat forward. If you compare my expenses to those of previous mayors, you'll find they compare favourably."
(In 2015-16 Cr Des Hudson received $19,408.99 in total (OS and interstate) travel reimbursements; Cr John Philips, mayor for 14 months, $17,289.51. Cr McIntosh received $7,788.93. The City of Ballarat has not provided any further details of these expenses on its website, nor any further historical expenses.)
"I'm not afraid to have this examined," Cr McIntosh said.
"I can happily say I know exactly what I spent and I have always tried to keep the costs as low as possible. I can't speak for anyone else."
The Courier spoke to Cr McIntosh specifically regarding a number of line items in her overseas expenses which referred to costs in Japan incurred following the world League of Historical Cities board meeting in Krakow.
A trip to Japan was not referred to in the Krakow report. Cr McIntosh's expenses in Japan totalled $1,299.75, including two Shinkansen or 'Bullet Train' trips to and from Kyoto at $180 a time.
That trip to Japan was a scheduled stopover on the return from Europe, Cr McIntosh says.
"It was either there or Dubai, and I knew the mayor of Kyoto (Daisaku Kadokawa) was the chair of the League (of Historical Cities). I decided it was an opportunity to speak to him, as I didn't want to waste any time. I'm quite happy to defend this."
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Cr McIntosh has consistently championed the World Heritage listing of the Goldfields region, which includes Ballarat, at conferences in China, Turkey and Poland, supporting the figure of a $68m per annum benefit to Ballarat if the listing goes ahead.
The $68m figure, provided in council documents, has never been independently verified.
Some of Cr McIntosh's line items include:
- the cost of a driver and translator in Paris ($325.35 and $162.67 respectively)
- A tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum ($63.82)
- Hong Kong Airport Lounge reimbursement stopover to Austria ($100.50)
- 2018 Flight to Europe for LHC conference ($4,405.45)
In May 2018 the City of Ballarat voted to remove international travel from the purview of the council chamber and public scrutiny, handing the decision to allow overseas trips solely to then-CEO Justine Linley.
At the time councillors were divided on the motion put by Ben Taylor and supported by Samantha McIntosh, Grant Tillett, Mark Harris and Jim Rinaldi.
Cr Tillett said 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.
If you compare my expenses to those of previous mayors, you'll find they compare favourablySamantha McIntosh
The decision was rescinded in December 2018 after councillors complained they were not being told details of planned trips.
Current mayor Ben Taylor incurred $1613.72 expenses studying parking in New Zealand; Cr Jim Rinaldi $726.32 while attending conference in Japan.
The City of Ballarat system of accounting for expenses is extremely unreliable and costs may have been missed. The City of Ballarat committed to publishing councillor expenses on its website quarterlyin 2017. This commitment has never been met; it now publishes a truncated report annually without detail or complete breakdown of spending.
Spending at the City of Ballarat is under the spotlight. In May the Victorian Ombudsman made damning findings about its procurement and recruitment processes. More recently serious questions have been asked about the budgeting and planning behind the Gatekeepers Cottage, fernery and Civic Hall projects, as well as its internal purchasing processes.
And what of the money claimed by councillors themselves? In the closing days of this term of council, The Courier made an application under the Freedom of Information Act for all expense claims by the nine councillors over the past four financial years. Over the coming days, the newspaper will analyse the documents that have now been released, exploring where and on what residents' rates have been spent and whether they were used effectively, transparently and for the benefit of Ballarat and its citizens.
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