A Tweed shire councillor will have her disputed claims of hundreds of dollars in travel expenses reimbursed after she voted with colleagues to pay her out, despite an audit finding she had provided insufficient detail of where she went or what she did.
During a heated council meeting on Thursday, Cr Carolyn Byrne again refused to provide the details of the nine claims totalling hundreds of dollars of ratepayer money which sparked mayor Katie Milne to call for transparency and an official audit,.
The audit found that details of her ‘site visits’ around the Tweed were inadequate and that her justification for the claim fell ‘short of an acceptable level of evidence by a reasonable commercial standard of governance’.
On Thursday, councillors voted 3-2 (Crs Milne and deputy mayor Gary Bagnall against) for the audit chair recommendation that Cr Byrne be reimbursed due to ’past practice’, where she had been paid for some amounts claimed.
But in an extraordinary precedent, Cr Byrne insisted the minutes record her pledge to donate the disputed claim money to the Save the Koala foundation.
Councillors then later voted along the same lines for a new councillor-expenses policy which removes mayor Milne from the overseeing role for disputed claims and gives the role to senior council officers, effectively keeping such claims and reviews in-house or secret.
Cr Byrne this morning issued Echonetdaily with a statement saying that all her expenses had been ‘confirmed and paid’ and were again with the mayor to sign off (under the existing policy).
‘As I mentioned to the mayor, if she had any issues with my claims then she could have deleted them, however she chose the more political motivated and time delaying method of taking it to the chair of the audit meeting,’ she said.
‘Once again, I have no issue with this, the claims were all related to council activities, meeting with residents and ratepayers who deserve a degree of privacy and respect.
‘The travel amount in dispute is around $130. Given the statutory payment on the engine size of the car which I drive.
‘I have donated $200 to the Australian Koala Foundation, receipt number 16525.’
Conflict of interest
During heated debate, Cr Bagnall questioned general manager Troy Green whether Cr Byrne should abstain from voting due to a conflict of interest, which Mr Green rejected, citing the Local Government Act.
Cr Milne used the expense claim for Cr Byrne’s National Party colleague, Cr Phil Youngblutt, as an example of transparency: a detailed half-page summary of a site visit.
Cr Bagnall told council he thought ’any reasonable person on council business wouldn’t have had a problem saying where they went’ if they were on council business.
‘How do I know they weren’t out gathering support?’ he said of Cr Byrne’s National Party candidacy.
(At the weekend, Cr Byrne failed in her bid to gain her party’s pre-selection for the federal seat of Richmond, which Matthew Fraser convincingly won in an electorate vote of 123-26).
Cr Bagnall also slammed the new expenses policy, saying it had no transparency, and that if a similar dispute arose ‘we will never know.
When Cr Polglase moved the staff reimbursement recommendation, Cr Byrne seconded it, an action criticised by Cr Bagnall who said that any other councillor ‘would have answered the mayor’s queries’.
‘Cr Byrne, I understand that you are running for the National Party’s preselection in a few days, how are we to know that you weren’t just canvasing for your election?’, Cr Bagnall said.
‘If you continue to refuse to tell this council and the community where you went and the nature of your trips, I cannot support that you be reimbursed.’
Cr Milne has repeatedly asked Cr Byrne to provide details of all nine disputed travel claims.
See earlier story at https://www.echo.net.au/2016/03/tweed-councillors-travel-claims-inadequate/
Last December, National Party councillors, supported by Cr Barry Longland, walked out of the meeting when Cr Milne questioned lack of detail in claims for telephone expenses of Cr Byrne and her colleague Cr Warren Polglase.
The mayor had also queried a claim for $9.95 by Cr Barry Longland for an aviation magazine.
But the walkout forced the meeting to abruptly close by denying a quorum.
Cr Milne had criticised the conservative councillors consistently claiming for the maximum amounts allowable under the policy of $220 for telephone and $99 for internet expenses, with no ‘proper’ documentation provided.
Cr Byrne had told council that both she and Cr Polglase had issued their invoices through their respective businesses and that they were legitimate claims.
A Tweed Shire Council spokesperson told media at the time that councillors had stuck to the ‘letter of the law’, but the ‘spirit of the policy is what we are trying to tighten up’.