Editorial: No free lunches, but free dinners for Councillors

Filed in Recent News by December 20, 2022

LAST night Council voted to refuse a donation to Merriwa’s St Joseph’s Primary School, for their 45 students to learn to swim and then after the meeting went and enjoyed a Christmas dinner funded by the ratepayers.

And look I think it is ok that the Councillors have an end of year Christmas dinner, with an invited guest and some key staff, but I personally don’t feel that ratepayers should foot the bill for a dinner after every Council meeting. Yes, there are free dinners after every Council meeting, paid for by you.

Former Councillor Sue Abbott rarely went to any of the dinners and when she did, she insisted on paying for her own meal, which I applaud. I was interested in how much ratepayer money has been spent on these dinners and asked for the details. It turns out the last Council spent $8,725.62 and this Council, until October had spent $2,783.44.

Update: On January 13, 2023, the general manager of Council, Greg McDonald advised: “I’ve received a question on the cost of the Christmas lunch function held for Councillors on the 19 December 2022. The catering costs are now in and the cost was $3,501.30.”

I personally find it a bit rich that Council can vote to pull the purse strings on small donations to community groups, but then literally eat that amount after the meeting. (In the case of the Christmas lunch, almost six times the cost of the swimming lessons!)

Moreover, I only recall being asked to two of the dinners since being a Councillor. The first was after the January meeting when Mayor Collison yelled across the chamber, “who’s coming to tea?” I had noticed Cr Abbott leave the Chamber in distress, so ignored the Mayor’s question and went to check on Cr Abbott’s welfare instead.

The second invitation I received was for last night’s meal at the Hunter Warbirds. Now I must admit I did toy with the idea of going, and if I did, on principle I would have paid for my own meal. I toyed with the idea because I could bring a plus one and that may have been highly entertaining. The first plus one who sprang to mind was John Preston. He was the kind person who took my matters against Council through NCAT, where Council was then forced to hand over the Merriwa-Willow Tree Road report. It could have been a nice opportunity for the Councillors to get to know John socially, he really is a lot of fun! Or perhaps I could have taken another lovely human who is one of Australia’s top defamation lawyers, everyone would have had plenty to talk about with him. Or maybe Mark, a merger and acquisition specialist who has a knack for unearthing the most interesting figures from most seemingly innocuous books, and since I find Council financials a bit of a struggle, he might have led some great conversation. But really, maybe taking the most disgruntled ratepayer in the Shire as my plus one would have been the best idea…maybe next year.

Ultimately, I found the whole feeding trough opportunity too difficult to swallow so declined the invitation.

But if I only recall two invitations all year, who has been eating their way through close to $3,000 in meals this year?  Turns out, until October there had indeed been 10 dinners and in the previous term 44 dinners. And again, you know how I struggle with maths (cynical sniggering) if there are 9 Councillors and two or four staff who attend these dinners, that works out to be $21 per head and $18 per head last term. Even if the dinners were all held at McDonald’s – which they are not – a dinner out for less than $18 is a push. So, I asked how many people attended the dinners. The general manager, Greg McDonald kindly broke it down and said by his calculation, based on only 5 or 6 Councillors attending and 3 or 4 staff, it would be $20 per head for the old Council and $27 per head for the current Council, which he explains, “most pub meals and a drink can be achieved for around this.” Fair enough. The final bill for last night’s dinner is not yet in…but I’ll let you know what the finally tally was when it is provided.

They kindly further broke down the cost of each dinner with the most expensive for the old Council being $479.04 in September 2016 and for the current Council $387 in September 2022. Of course my requests for this information was meet with emails from other Councillors questioning who was asking for the figures, why I wanted these figures, my intention for gathering these figures, who I was going to share these figures with and “gently” reminding me (although it in no way felt gentle) of my obligations to adhere to the Council Code of Practice. I’ve checked and can confirm that I can obtain, discuss and share this information completely at my discretion, which is firmly upheld by the laws of qualified privilege.

In a discussion at the October 2021 Council meeting the costs of dinners was raised by Cr Abbott. It was in relation to the costs of people requesting information from the Council, which had risen. Cr Abbott argued the costs should not be as high as they are, as the spirit of transparency was important, and information should be readily available to the public. Cr Campbell argued there are no “free lunches” and there were costs associated with sourcing information for the public that need to be covered.

The following enlightening exchange occurred:

Cr Abbott: With respect to free lunches, we could make savings on just basically rationalising our Christmas dinner that Councillors have and that we don’t go to an expensive restaurant and we should be looking at the monthly dinner as well. Obviously we haven’t had that during covid, but there are all sorts of areas where we can think of making reductions so we can support people who want to put in GIPA requests.

Cr Campbell: Look that’s fine, I live…it takes me an hour and a half at times to get home because of fog and the kangaroos, in fact I’ve just written my X-trail off hitting a kangaroo, so I also know about that. And I don’t want my wife to be up there late at night having a dinner ready for me to get home. Plus there’s the fact that it’s a health matter. And the dinners that we’ve had I’ve never seen any of the directors or Councillors go to excess in what they’ve ordered or also what they drink, if they have one drink that’s about all, maybe two. So I disagree with the fact that, that is something that a rationalisation and saving I think it’s quite outlandish, because other people live very close to town.

(If you want to listen to the full exchange on Council’s YouTube at 48:30 it’s here: Dinner debate.)

As the only single parent on Council, I manage to ensure my girls have dinner when I am at Council meetings. They are both proficient at using the microwave, able to serve themselves from the slow cooker, or even make their own meal from scratch! Raising independent women is something I feel is important and would be no less important if I had sons.

Dinner with my fabulous little ladies, who are extremely capable and inspiring.

However, I would never dream of subjecting them to being my plus-one at a Council Christmas dinner. They have already sacrificed enough with me being a Councillor. Last night, my daughters ensured there was a bottle of my favourite champagne chilled and ready to go on my return from the meeting. So tonight, as a small acknowledgement of their patience and support of me during my first year as a Councillor, I will be spending my own money taking my girls out for dinner.

To all of the people who voted for me, and those that support me as a Councillor. Thank you. It has been a bloody tough first year but I am committed to doing what you sent me in to do and will continue to weather whatever Code of Conducts are sent my way, in what I believe are attempts to thwart my efforts to do my job. I dearly miss Sue Abbott, but remain inspired by her unwavering strength and resilience. 

I sincerely wish everyone in the Shire a safe and wonderful Christmas, and hope you all find a moment to share a meal with those you love.

And as a ratepayer you can take some comfort that last night’s Council Christmas dinner was at the Hunter Warbirds, which should at least boost much needed visitor numbers!

Kind Regards, Cr Elizabeth Flaherty

All of the above are my perspectives, opinions and beliefs as a Councillor on the Upper Hunter Shire Council, which may not (in fact probably don’t) reflect Council’s position, but which as an elected representative I am supported in law to freely express.

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