Council cafe meetings off the menu in Dunedin

By Chris Morris of the Otago Daily Times

The latest figures showed a handful of cafe meetings and expensive dinners still featured. Photo / Thinkstock
The latest figures showed a handful of cafe meetings and expensive dinners still featured. Photo / Thinkstock

Dunedin City Council staff appear to have changed their ways since a culture of cafe meetings and expensive staff dinners - charged to ratepayer-funded purchase cards - was revealed two years ago.

Council chief executive Paul Orders has given the organisation an almost complete clean bill of health after releasing the latest breakdown of purchase card spending to the Otago Daily Times.

The release of the figures - following an official information request - showed the council's top 34 managers, five personal assistants and Mayor Dave Cull had together accrued $336,403 in bills on their cards since July 2010.

The card spending drew on approved council budgets and covered everything from office stationary and equipment to flights, conference registration fees and accommodation for staff on council trips.

Figures released in 2010 showed senior staff had spent $100,500 on food, coffee, entertainment and drink in the previous three years, including $7000 on questionable meetings in city cafes.

The revelations came amid greater public scrutiny of spending by public officials nationwide, and prompted some council staff in Dunedin to apologise to then-chief executive Jim Harland and repay money.

The latest figures, released last week, showed a handful of cafe meetings and expensive dinners still featured, although numbers were well down on two years ago.

Mr Orders said meetings between council staff had "to all intents and purposes ceased" in the last year.

Each card came with a monthly spending limit, and purchases required receipts, monthly reports and regular checks and approval by each staff member's manager.

Mr Orders said he was satisfied the spending drew on approved council budgets and in the last year, almost without exception, had been for legitimate business purposes.

"There will always be situations around the margin when it comes to areas such as hospitality, but my expectations around this have been made very clear to all staff."

Figures released with the information showed 201 staff had purchase cards in 2010-11, but the number dropped to 173 staff in 2011-12.

Total spending across all cards over the period was $2.59 million, with 6776 transactions totalling $1,346,286 in 2010-11 and 5973 transactions totalling $1,251,818 in 2011-12.

The breakdown of individual transactions covered the top 40 cards, and showed five personal assistants - buying flights, accommodation, stationery and other necessaries for a range of staff - were the highest spenders.

Spending on courses and conferences - as well as associated flights and accommodation - featured prominently in the lists.

However, Mr Orders said in 2011-12 the totals spent were down, and well below budget, compared to the previous year, with about $100,000 of the $328,000 budget unspent in the last year, he said.

The previous year, in 2010-11, council staff had spent $332,000 - about $32,000 more than was budgeted, he said.

Conference spending would be reviewed again while preparing next year's budgets, but it was important staff continued to pursue "appropriate" professional development events, he believed.

He was satisfied staff were operating within proper guidelines, and happy the purchase card system provided checks and balances but also public transparency.

"The position is not perfect, but the figures reveal a significant improvement on what has gone before," he said.

- Otago Daily Times

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