A Gunnedah councillor who asked for $3000 in taxi expenses to get to council meetings dating back 17 years has had her claim knocked back and granted only $279.
Gunnedah Shire Council voted to deny Councillor Gwen Griffen’s claims for the entire amount during its meeting on Wednesday night and award her only the equivalent of a year’s taxi expenses.
The bid has prompted anger within councillor and staff ranks in Gunnedah and inflamed public opinion in the wake of the outcome.
Councillor Griffen late yesterday responded to the outcry and said she was astounded by the fallout from the claim.
But she denied she was trying to rip ratepayers off or had done anything wrong. She admitted that perhaps she had been a bit naive “and silly” about thinking there would be no backlash to her claims.
“I have done the right thing. I have put this out in the open and anybody can see and choose to comment on it. But I had no idea it would cause this ruckus,” Cr Griffen said.
“But under the legislation I was entitled to claim that money and I did not claim anything I didn’t think I was entitled to.”
She described her failure to lodge claims over the past years as “an oversight” that she had not considered then, but her personal circumstances had since changed and the taxi expenses were an extra burden now.
Earlier yesterday mayor Adam Marshall said he was disappointed with the whole saga and admitted that Cr Griffen’s determination to n from page 1
have the matter considered by the council, in open debate, has in the end reflected badly on everyone
The issue was debated at the monthly meeting this week and resulted in a council move to tighten the
policy over expenses claims.
Councillor Griffen, who is the longest serving councillor and was first elected in 1995, was also the first
Aboriginal councillor elected to Gunnedah.
On June 25 she lodged a claim for reimbursement of expenses incurred when using taxis to attend 449 of the council’s meetings between her election in 1995 and June this year.
None of the trips were receipted and the claim saw council staff resort to working out an average fare for each taxi based on prices over the 17-year period.
Cr Griffen does not drive or hold a licence and the council reports indicate Cr Griffen caught a taxi to 90 per cent of council meetings.
Under the council’s current expenses policy on limits as to what a councillor can claim – in terms of the amount or the period for claim – are defined.
However, in the wake of the Griffen issue, the council has now introduced a rule that allows only claims inside 45 days.
“Yes, I think this could have been handled a lot better than it has,” Cr Marshall said.
“I think councillors were quite shocked and surprised at its appearance in the business paper. There is a policy that clearly allows for claims, but this is not in the spirit of the policy.”
Cr Marshall said it was generally accepted in local government that where councillors incurred public transport expenses to do council business, they were accepted and above board.
It is understood though that in most councils, including Tamworth, councillors who drive themselves to meetings within the city, do not claim those expenses.
The Gunnedah meeting heard that the total amount being claimed by Cr Griffen was $3115, and councillors were given four options to decide in the debate. These ranged from paying the full amount, paying a claim for the current term of council, paying only for the past 12 months, or only for the last month.
Cr Griffen excused herself from the debate on the grounds of pecuniary interest and did not take part in the decision. The rest of the councillors voted for the one-year option, with councillor Leon Mills voting against it.
It is believed Cr Mills voted against it to record his opposition to any payment being made at all.
Cr Marshall said council procedure includes attendance records which are generally signed at meetings and the provision of claim forms for expenses incurred on council business.
It is understood that another Gunnedah councillor regularly fills these forms in because he lives 40km from the chambers and records his mileage for council
Cr Marshall said Cr Griffen had never claimed any expenses for travel in the past.
He has described the issue as unfortunate and admits that the whole sorry incident will reflect badly on Cr Griffen, councillors in general, and on the Gunnedah council.
Cr Marshall has admitted that the issue has done nothing for the image of local government – which has for years suffered from metropolitan media reports highlighting any “snouts-in-the-trough” allegations and council junkets.