Twinning row at Kildare County Council over funding concern

Transparency issue raised by councillor

Henry Bauress

Reporter:

Henry Bauress

Email:

henry.bauress@leinsterleader.ie

Twinning row at Kildare County Council over funding concern

Cllr Fional McLoughlin Healy

Kildare County Council has been accused of not requiring accountability and transparency from town and county twinning associations.

At the Council’s monthly meeting on June 26, Cllr Fiona McLoughlin Healy proposed that unless and until the Council “addresses its failure to ask all town or county twinning associations to provide evidence of good governance, accountability, transparency and fairness” in spending of Council funds, the Council should transfer these funds to food banks and food share programs around the county.

She told the Council she had declined invitations to travel because of the situation.

She also called for a review of Council protocol and the meeting of special criteria for the receipt of Council funds, which  is to happen.

Cllr McLoughlin Healy read a statement to the Council at the meeting, at which she said that €80,000 was spent from Council funds but it was difficult to get answers from the Council on how the money was spent.

A number of councillors criticised  Cllr McLoughlin Healy at the meeting.

In an official written reply to the motion, Director of Services, Sonya Kavanagh, responding to the motion said: “The members agreed to allocate funding to Twinning in Budget 2017. Twinning Committees are required to provide costed work programme for the year.

“On receipt of this paperwork, their grant is processed and receipts are then required to be submitted by a specified date later in the year. Having had a number of discussions at Municipal District level regarding Twinning it has been agreed that a Twinning Protocol and Procedure will be drafted and presented to the Protocol Committee for consideration at their October meeting.”

In her initial statement read to the Council chamber yesterday, Cllr McLoughlin Healy said: “In March of this year I was invited to join a Town Twinning Trip by a member of this Council. I was informed that travel and accommodation would at the very least be covered for both myself my husband and if we didn’t want to spend much time with the delegation we could stay in a quieter a hotel on the edge of town, never having to meet up with the rest of the delegation again until the trip is over.

“I was informed that the member and his wife travel almost every year and that I too was entitled to travel on any of the trips taken by any of the Town and County Twinings.”

She said that on the grounds that she could access little or no information relating to the activities and expenditure and objectives of any of the Twinning groups, and the difficulty accessing information and reassurances from the Council regarding its oversight role, she declined to accept the invitation to travel.  

Cllr McLoughlin Healy said Town Twinning developed in the aftermath of World War 2 as a laudable attempt to reunite bitterly divided communities. To this day, the EU continues to support and fund Town Twinning but its view of the role of Twinning has naturally evolved over time.  The European Commission will only fund Twinning groups that are legally constituted, not for profit organisations capable of delivering results.

She said reports on Kildare twinnings were “ held on file for the Executive, the internal Audit Team and the Local Government Auditor” and this was “an insult to members and the taxpayers funding the twinning programmes. “

Cllr McLoughlin Healy said she is not accusing any Twinning group of abusing funds and did not doubt that volunteers worked hard.

She said  the latest information provided on the Council’s website dates back to 2006.

Calling for a review of the structures, she argued against the Director's suggestion that the existing structures be formalised..

She said “most of the twinning groups are not legally constituted”.

“The council has failed spectacularly in its oversight function,” she said. Without proper oversight, she added, the money should good to food programmes.

Cllr Paddy Kennedy rejected her views.

He said the twinning groups held AGMs and reports were available at those.

He said he and Cllr Mark Stafford each had a €193.31 flight paid for by the Council on a twinning trip but the rest of the expenses were paid for by themselves on the trip.

Cllr Naoise O’Cearuil said Cllr McLoughlin Healy was making “a personal attack on twinning.”

He said his sister had gone to France with the Maynooth group which is twinned with Canet en Roussillon.

He “disagreed strongly” with Cllr McLoughlin Healy’s assessment, which he said was “disingenuous”.

Cllr Brendan Weld agreed with Cllr O’Cearuil. “We have a very open approach,” he said.

He welcomed the presence in the Council Chamber of former councillor, Senan Griffin, who is chairman of the twinning group and has done a huge amount of volunteer work on student exchanges.

Cllr Weld said it was very disingenuous to say that there was something underhand going on. “This was only seeking publicity,” he said.

Cllr Seamie Moore said he was disappointed to hear the “tirade.”

“She has an ingenious skill in turning words into spite,” he said, adding this was an attack on twinning.

Cllr Moore said it was not true there was an elitist interest involved, or that there were no report or that the system was unaccountable.

He said funding from the Council went towards looking after visitors. “Most people pay their own way when they go on twinning trips.”

Cllr Mark Stafford said twinning was referred to in the Local Government Act.

The local twinning group were different to the Council in funding requirements.

He said there was a lacuna in twinning following the abolition of town council’s.

Cllr Brendan Young said people differed on the whether accounts were available. He said Cllr McLoughlin Healy’s request was reasonable.

Cllr Thomas Redmond said that the Sinn Fein believed the Director’s response was adequate. He said there was good work by twinning group but guidelines were needed. He fully supported the Athy group.

Cllr Suzanne Doyle said there was a role for a contrarian point of view, but it had to be tempered.

She said that €80,000 was a “paltry” sum compared to what other countries spent on receiving guest. It was “embarrassing” that we did not have funds sometimes.

She said that Cllr Paddy Kennedy had gone on a  trip to China and it was hoped that jobs could come about as a result.

Cllr Doyle said twinning was valuable but there are legitimate questions to be asked about spending.

Cllr Reada Cronin said the motion should be sent to the Protocol committee.

Cllr Padraig McEvoy said it was easy to insinuate something was wrong but it could do damage to the positive side of twinning.

Cllr Mark Lynch said that the last four lines of the motion, relating to the review of Council protocol, should proceed.

Speaking at the meeting, Director of Services, Sonya Kavanagh, said it was unfortunate there were negative comments. She said there was a great service of volunteerism in the twinning sector.

Ms Kavanagh said the website had not been updated and that will be reviewed by October.

She said it would be premature to reallocate funds to food banks.

Cllr McLoughlin Healy said she was looking for a review of the criteria.

She said there is a history of attacks on people who ask questions in the Council. “I should not have to turn investigative journalist,” she said.

She said she could back up what she said and she was not happy with the report.