Councillors could be grounded after European study tour is axed

 

Strathfield councillors may ground themselves from all foreign trips except where there are special circumstances after a sometimes angry hour-long debate over a European study tour.

The seven-day European trip, which four councillors approved at an extraordinary meeting last month, was axed after a rare “rescission” motion was passed unanimously by the full council.

The motion was proposed by independent councillor Helen McLucas and backed by Labor’s Raj Datta and Daniel Bott.

The European tour, decribed in an officer’s report as designed to help councillors undersand how their overseas counterparts dealt with major developments, was to have been tacked onto the end of an official Sister City trip to Gapyeong, South Korean.

That trip, part of the Sister City agreement, will go ahead.

But Cr McLucas described the European leg, estimated to cost $5,200 a head in air fares and hotels, as “a vacation” in a email to voters alerting them to the decision.

And at the full council meeting, she suggested that it was “poor decision making” and could damage the reputation of councillors at a time when amalgamation was being discussed.

She said she would be seeking a new policy of no overseas travel unless under specific circumstances.

“I do not believe overseas travel is suitable for councillors except in rare circumstances when there is a vote by full council, “ she said.

She added:  “We need to focus on roads, rates and rubbish.  That is our job.” If deeper knowledge were needed, councillors could call upon the experience of staff and consultants.

At times heated, the debate saw Cr Sang Ok, a Korean who had already travelled to Gapyeong to prepare for the councillors’ visit, vigorously defend the idea of turning council into Strathfield’s “brain” and the “engine house”.

He read from the Strathfield vision for 2025, citing plans plans for a new town centre and Korean Garden. Councillors still lacked experience for these huge projects, he said, and could learn from overseas.

Cr Stephanie Kokkolis maintained Cr McLucas’ e-mail contained “misconceptions and deceptions”.  She asked for an apology.

She added councillors could pay their own way for study tours if necessary.

Mayor Gulian Vaccari maintained council prided itself on being a team.  But the tone of the email and its criticism were not in line with this.

“I’ll be supporting the rescission motion because it is important that this council returns to a united force working for the residents”, he said.

But he added the suggestions in Cr McLucas’ email was critical and “disrespected the Korean culture”.

“I’m completely offended”, he said.

Councillor's McLucas, Datta and Bott were not in attendance when Cr Vaccari , Deputy Mayor Andrew Soulos and councillors Sang Ok and Stephanie Kokkalis voted unanimously that two nominees be chosen to visit three European cities.

According to a council report, the purpose was  “to inform and educate Council of the latest developments in urban planning and design and local governance”.

The report states: “It is also proposed that Council representatives travel to Europe, as they can see and experience first hand developments that have directly informed Council’s work on Strathfield Town Centre and the Parramatta Road Corridor.

“Council has developed strong high level relationships with a number of local authorities and similar organisations in Europe, it is considered that it would be cost effective for the representatives to incorporate a visit to Europe in conjunction with the Sister City visit.”

The cost per councillor in air fares and hotels was outlined as $8,900 for both the Korean and European legs.

The council papers maintain: “Funding has not been provided in the current budget for this purpose. Should Council approve the expenditure the source of the funding will need to be identified in the next budget review.”

Originally, according to Cr McLucas, the trip was only to visit Strathfield’s sister city in South Korea, Gapyeong, under the terms of council’s sister city agreement.

Gapyeong representatives visited Strathfield in 2011.

Cr Datta supported Cr McLucas, saying against a backcloth of possible forced amalgamations, this was “not a time when we should go on tours to Europe.”

Cr Bott added:  “I do have concerns about the budget.  A trip to Europe may be a trip too far.”

The council report recommending the seven-day European trip said of the benefits of the tour:

“Firstly, the need for travel is related to the established Sister City relationship with Gapyeong County in order to meet obligations to build and promote this relationship through cultural, educational and professional exchanges between the two cities.

“Secondly, there is a strong need for Australia and in particularly Sydney to learn from places that are successfully planning and implementing good urban developments through effective local government approaches.

“Whilst this can be done through study of documents and online information, this does not substitute for talking to those responsible, and hearing and seeing directly what was/is involved and how the outcomes have been delivered. This is especially the case, given that a number of international best practice developments have informed Council’s work on Strathfield Town Centre and the Parramatta Road Corridor


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