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Shocking overseas travel bills of NSW councils revealed

NSW councils have splurged hundreds of thousands of ratepayer dollars on overseas jaunts to destinations ranging from Lithuania to South Korea while the backlog bill for unrepaired potholed roads has blown out into the billions.

A special Daily Telegraph investigation can reveal that local councils are dipping into their budgets for international study tours and fact-finding missions to learn about climate change, how to become "smarter" cities and even traditional dance.

One local government even spent more than $11,000 to send its mayor to the Lithuania International Children's Games.

The backlog of road maintenance across NSW is growing in size and cost. Picture: Justin Lloyd
The backlog of road maintenance across NSW is growing in size and cost. Picture: Justin Lloyd

It comes after a report released earlier this year found that the state's road maintenance backlog had risen 30 per cent in the past four years to $2.2 billion.

Blacktown City Council alone forked out $84,588 in 2017-18 - including $31,579 for two council staff to take a 19-day tour across the US and Europe to look at sports facilities.

Blacktown Mayor and MP Stephen Bali (second from right) with general manager Kerry Robinson (third from right) and community events manager Peter Filmer (far left) in South Korea in 2017.
Blacktown Mayor and MP Stephen Bali (second from right) with general manager Kerry Robinson (third from right) and community events manager Peter Filmer (far left) in South Korea in 2017.

The staff members travelled to Los Angeles, London, Manchester, Berlin and Paris to "engage with operators and design experts" as research for council plans to develop an international training centre at the Blacktown International Sportspark.

Another $32,530 was spent on Blacktown Mayor Stephen Bali, who is also a Labor MP, and three council employees for a 10-day business networking trip to South Korea.

"(It) was part of the council's plan to grow our $15.6 billion economy and create jobs by exploring trade, investment and employment opportunities with overseas countries," Mayor Bali said.

The Blacktown Local Government Area's unemployment rate was 5.07 per cent for the 2019 March quarter.

Blacktown also paid $1369 for its arts program co-ordinator Paschal Berry to go to the Philippines for a Performance Curators Initiatives Symposium, where attendees were treated to cocktails and a traditional dance lesson.

Blacktown Arts Program coordinator Paschal Berry (right) at the Performance Curators Initiatives Symposium in the Philippines.
Blacktown Arts Program coordinator Paschal Berry (right) at the Performance Curators Initiatives Symposium in the Philippines.

CLIMATE TALKFEST

When asked about the trip, a council spokesman said that 10 per cent of the Blacktown population was Filipino and Mr Berry was invited to be a keynote speaker.

The spokesman said council spending on international trips made up 0.015 per cent of the total council budget.

The City of Sydney racked up $46,000 in travel bills for trips in the 2018-19 financial year. That included $39,000 for Lord Mayor Clover Moore and her staff to go on a women's climate change conference in Paris.

Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore at a press conference with American mayors in Paris. Picture: Ella Pellegrini
Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore at a press conference with American mayors in Paris. Picture: Ella Pellegrini

Ratepayers were also slugged $2400 for Councillor Robert Kok to go to the Nanjing Art Festival in China with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, while another $1000 went towards Councillor Jess Scully's trip to China for a music convention where she heard from speakers including a former world champion fiddler and the head booker at Glastonbury Music Festival.

In 2016 the council spent $60,000 for Crs Moore and Kok to go to China for the 30th anniversary of Sydney-Guangzhou's sister city relationship.

Lord Mayor Clover Moore at Pazhou light rail station, Guangzhou in 2016.
Lord Mayor Clover Moore at Pazhou light rail station, Guangzhou in 2016.

THOUGHT EXCHANGE

A City of Sydney spokesman said the council stood by its spending.

"The Lord Mayor and the City receive a great number of international invitations each year. All international travel is put to the Council for approval," he said. "These trips also provided a platform for representatives to exchange thoughts and experiences to aid in reviewing, improving, and developing the city's own policies and practices."

A pothole on Bundarra Road in Bellevue Hill, Sydney, 9th January, 2019. Picture by Damian Shaw
A pothole on Bundarra Road in Bellevue Hill, Sydney, 9th January, 2019. Picture by Damian Shaw

But Sydney councillor Angela Vithoulkas said that while some tours were beneficial it was crucial to be transparent because the trips are paid for by ratepayers.

"Sometimes we should tighten our belts. Just because we have a lot of money doesn't mean we have to squander it," she said.

Canterbury-Bankstown Council forked out $27,203 on global jaunts in 2017-18, including $19,110 for a staff member to attend a "smart cities exchange" in California to learn about digital ecosystems, innovation and sustainability.

Councillor Angela Vithoulkas says some tours are beneficial but transparency is paramount because the trips are funded by rates. Picture: AAP/Joel Carrett
Councillor Angela Vithoulkas says some tours are beneficial but transparency is paramount because the trips are funded by rates. Picture: AAP/Joel Carrett

In June this year, 10 councillors went to the US and Canada on an eight-day trip to learn about "smart cities".

They paid for their own flights but accommodation was covered by the council.

Lake Macquarie Council also wanted to learn about "smart cities", so it put $22,500 toward the mayor, deputy mayor and CEO doing a study tour across Singapore, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Eindhoven and Tel Aviv for research in August last year.

Learning about virtual reality in Austin, Texas, as part of a smart city exchange.
Learning about virtual reality in Austin, Texas, as part of a smart city exchange.

 

CHILDREN'S GAMES

The council also spent $11,502 sending their mayor to the Lithuania International Children's Games in 2017. A council spokesman said the event allows the mayor to build relationships with other cities around the world.

"Council has been involved with the ICG since 2008 (including hosting the event in 2014) and it has been the practice over the past decade for the mayor to fill the city representative role," he said.

Meanwhile, Wollongong Council's bill came to $18,214 over the 2017-18 financial year, including nearly $14,000 for Mayor Gordon Bradbery to travel to Europe for a local government conference.

Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery spent over $18,000 in 2017-2018.
Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery spent over $18,000 in 2017-2018.

Tamworth Council also paid $12,969 in the 2017-18 financial year for overseas travel, with trips in its annual report including the mayor travelling to sister city Nashville.

Waverley Council, Hornsby and Penrith were among councils that did not put any money toward international travel in 2017-18.

"I would say I personally as a councillor and as mayor have never seen any good reason to use ratepayer money to travel overseas," Waverley mayor John Wakefield said.

Waverley Mayor John Wakefield says he has never seen a good reason to use ratepayer money to travel overseas.
Waverley Mayor John Wakefield says he has never seen a good reason to use ratepayer money to travel overseas.

The NRMA report said councils were struggling to maintain the 184,859km of local roads they manage across NSW, with repair backlogs increasing 14.5 per cent over 12 months. Wollongong had one of the highest road repair backlogs at $79.8 million while ­Canterbury-Bankstown's was $63.8 million and Blacktown's $41.7 million.

Delegates learn a dance at the Performance Curators Initiatives Symposium in the Philippines.
Delegates learn a dance at the Performance Curators Initiatives Symposium in the Philippines.
Clover Moore meets Mayor of London Sadiq Khan at the London City Hall. Picture: Ella Pellegrini
Clover Moore meets Mayor of London Sadiq Khan at the London City Hall. Picture: Ella Pellegrini


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