Council’s racing hospitality bill hard to swallow

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Revelations that the Warrnambool City Council spent $17,000 on a corporate hospitality tent at the May Races are hard to digest. Image source: Source: Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images AsiaPac 

OPINION

As Warrnambool ratepayers prepare to swallow a 5.5 per cent rate rise this year, revelations that the Warrnambool City Council spent $17,000 on a hospitality tent at the May Races will be hard to digest.

A request by Cr Peter Hulin for more information about the council’s marquee at the 2014 May Races has revealed that $17,036 was spent on wining, dining and entertaining 90 guests.

The breakdown includes $3762 for food, $1489 for drinks, $4950 for members reserve tickets and wristbands, $6610 for the marquee (including staff, decorations, chairs etc) and $225 for racebooks.

And the potential cost could have been as much as $25,000, as 168 invitations were issued but only 90 accepted.

The WCC’s policy on the event, which has been included in this week’s meeting agenda, says the hospitality is intended to show the council’s support for the May Racing Carnival, while also promoting the 142-year-old event to politicians, key bureaucrats and regional leaders.

It is also, apparently, a great place to do business: to discuss “strategic projects” (presumably in-between races), and to develop “organisation to organisation” relationships, whatever that might mean.

red wine flowing
Just weeks before the WCC passed a budget that included a 5.5% rate rise, the wine was flowing in its corporate hospitality tent at the May Racing Carnival.

I don’t know if you received an invitation to the marquee , but those who did included:

  • 24 members of council and their partners (including each councillor, the CEO, Mayor and directors);
  • 12 state and federal MPs,
  • 9 senior government bureaucrats,
  • 65 regional leaders (including South Coast Board members, Wannon Water executives, senior police, senior health executives, the Deakin University Vice-Chancellor and South-West TAFE CEO);
  • and two of Cr Brian Kelson’s business associates.

Another 56 people described as “groups and individuals working closely with council” were also extended the opportunity to enjoy a day by the track.

This group included representatives of Maddocks Lawyers, a Melbourne-based legal firm that describes itself as one of the top 20 law firms in Australia and who, presumably, represents the council. I am not sure why top-of-the-town lawyers need to be wined and dined as part of developing “organisation to organisation” relationships.

This final group also included the President of Commerce Warrnambool, a position currently held by Tony Herbert.

I find this intriguing for two reasons: first, that Commerce Warrnambool – at the time of the May Race Carnival – was deep in discussions with the council about its proposal to hit traders with a new compulsory levy to raise $3 million over five years to fund its activities. Indeed, the motion to set the levy in train was passed by the council just a fortnight later.

Being invited into the WCC hospitality marquee in the lead-up to that decision is the sort of access that traders fighting against the levy can only dream about.

Second, Commerce Warrnambool has argued that it needs funds from the levy to, among other things, act as a lobby group to council, but it appears that it is already well and truly “inside the tent”.

tighten belt

 

We don’t know, as yet, who actually made up the 90 people who attended the marquee and if they included Mr Herbert, who yesterday declined to say whether he accepted the invitation or not, or Cr Kelson’s two unnamed business associates.

But what we do know is that such corporate largesse is difficult to justify when so many people in the south-west are struggling to make ends meet.

And it is even harder to justify when rates are rising at almost double the rate of inflation and double the interest rate on most savings accounts.

Wining and dining has long been a part of how business operates, but we are not talking here about a commercial company like Coles, or Telstra or McDonalds: we are talking about a local council that has you as it shareholders (ratepayers) and which should be leading by example.

I find this sort of corporate partying (aka “networking”) particularly galling when, at the same time as the council’s guests are sipping champagne and nibbling on canapes, there are literacy programs, arts projects, history projects, health projects, environmental projects and many other small, but important community projects all struggling to secure funding from an ever-shrinking pool.

While it must be easy to lose perspective when you are dealing with tens of millions of dollars, as the council does, to each and every one of these community projects, $17,000 is still a lot of money.

No doubt those people who attended the race day had a marvellous time and perhaps even came away feeling a little more connected, inspired and ready to do business with the council, if they weren’t already.

But to me, the corporate marquee revelations are cause for a very bad case of indigestion.

 

20 thoughts on “Council’s racing hospitality bill hard to swallow”

  1. Seeing that 168 invitations were issued, I would presume that 236 people were catered for (assuming 2 people per invitation.) Which begs the question, what happened to all the left-overs, seeing as how only 90 (or even 180) people turned up? I hope that they went to the homeless or to some equally worthy recipients. I really hate waste! And what a complete waste of taxpayer’s money was this little endeavour. How much worthwhile networking could possibly have been done between people who already work together? Honestly!! I can see the phrase “inside the tent” becoming a euphemism for being in the council’s good books.

  2. Good on you and thanks Bluestone for this info – that sure is a hellova lot of cash that I for one would rather see spent on something else – how about telling the FJ story in Warrnambool? Or a community arts officer based at the Artery? There’s lots of things if our community got a say that I reckon we’d rather spend the money on. How is the value for these dollars evaluated? Sounds like those people could all afford to pay to be in a Council Tent at the May Races. Can anyone just go in? How do you get on the invite list? Geez I wouldn’t mind access to a few of those people to chew their ears!

  3. How do you get an invitation …I want to know…who decides?
    Sounds a bit like how the decisions are made re the citizenship awards to me….
    Given that the Department of Human Services has stopped providing any refreshments at any of the meetings I attend in an effort to ‘tighten our belts’, it would appear this practice has not filtered down to local government.
    I am not so worried about the $17.000 expenditure – what I am concerned about is the lack of transparency of the deciding of who gets a guernsey.
    Partners of the Councillors? why i wonder if councillors are there networking and working their butts off to bring industry to the region…..
    I don’t take my partner to work and I don’t ask my workplace to pay for my partner to have a day out….

  4. It’s important for the council to have a presence at the May Racing Carnival, it’s the city’s major event for the year after all. But this bill seems extraordinarily high, and I have to question the need for Councillor Kelson to have “business associates” there.

    Was he discussing his own personal business with them or were they there for Council business?

    After all it was on the rate payers dollar, so I hope if it’s the former, he coughs up the cash to pay for them. But then are we likley to get a straight answer from him? I think not.

    1. Good to see you again Steve. We still haven’t received your subscription, which I am sure is on its way because I know you are such an avid reader of Bluestone. In the meantime, Cr Kelson has written a reply below.

        1. No problem Steve, but shortly comments on Opinion pieces will be for subscribers only, so you will understand while your posts will, unfortunately, no longer appear.

  5. As WTAG continue to visit businesses to discuss the proposed “special rate” to fund Commerce Warrnambool we are still hearing stories of extreme hardship and the fear of what an extra tax on top of the 5.5% rate rise will mean to them and their bottom line. I would like to see this type of money ($17 000) spent to help lighten their loads, to help ease them through this very difficult economic time.
    I am also very interested, and quite disturbed, that CW’s President was on this invitation list. I now have an answer to everybody’s question when they ask me “what is Cr Neoh’s stake in all of this?” And, “why is the WCC pushing so hard to have this tax applied given the complete lack of confidence the business community has in CW?” The “leaders” of this town are a complete and utter embarrassment. They have an opportunity tomorrow night to turn this all around, but I am willing to take bets that when Neoh asks for the Councillor’s to vote on his motion to defer the notification date we will all hear a resounding 3-2, for it.
    Well done on another fantastic and enlightening story. Thank God for you Bluestone!

  6. Steve, I agree a presence at the May Racing Carnival is important for the City, if it is used correctly. After attending in 2013, my first year as a Councillor, I was astounded at how few people were in attendance and raised concerns about the cost of the event.
    Firstly I would like to say that my guests were not my “business associates” and in fact I had not met them prior to race day. I will be asking at Monday nights meeting to have a correction to the agenda stating that the two people invited were “investors” not “business associates”. I was contacted by a mutual friend/developer telling me these people were coming to Warrnambool and looking to invest a considerable amount of money in the Warrnambool or surrounding area. I then suggested to Bruce Anson CEO that it maybe worthwhile inviting them to the marquee on the information I had been given, as the investment was significant. It is my understanding that Bruce consulted with the Mayor who then extended hospitality to the couple. Introductions were made to the Mayor and head of planning, Warrnambool City Council, Mayor of Corangarmite and Councillors of Moyne Shire.
    To my knowledge, no other networking took place on the day, surely this is the purpose of a hospitatality marquee. The cost of running this event is high and if potential investors and like cannot be invited to develop business for Warrnambool then I agree the marquee should be ceased immediately. I made the choice to attend the Council marquee over other invitations I had received to hospitatality tents for the sole purpose of promoting Warrnambool. I had also made Ace Radio aware of these investors, the day after the races I received an email from Sales Manager Tracey Kol stating
    “I am glad you had a great day. We as a city are lucky that you are such a great host”
    You can’t always please everyone but I am certainly trying to do my best for Warrnambool”
    Cr. Brian Kelson

    1. I knew Cr Kelson would have a reasonable explanation. Yet again information from WCC has been skewed to attempt to make him look bad. Keep up the good work for the people who elected you Brian!

      1. I agree with you, Amanda. Councillor Kelson is a truly genuine person, who is representing the voices of Warrnambool. I will also add there are two other councillors who always answer phone calls and emails. They are councillors Hulin and Sycopoulis. These councillors are doing great work in asking the CEO to NE accountable. Unfortunately, we have other councillors who do not appear to care that much.

    2. Thanks for the response councillor.

      Although I would be bitterly disappointed if the marquee was to cease operation. The May Races is the town’s premier event, it would be strange to not see council represented. At the end if the day it also supports the racing club and the local people employed as hospitality staff by caterers etc.

      Also Bluestone are you able to clarify if this figure is for the three days of the carnival, or just one or two?

      1. We are not certain, but most likely for one day – we suspect it would be on the main race day of Thursday.

  7. Fantastic article Bluestone, once again highlighting the need for greater transparency by our Council in how they expend ratepayers money. Hmmm the term “Snouts in the Trough” seems to be apt here.
    I am very glad to read Cr Kelsons comments, so good to know that some Councillors take their position very seriously and work hard for the good of our City…more than I can say for some others on Council.
    Oh well I guess the Council Election is not too far away…and I hope that every Business Owner, Saleyard Supporter and indeed resident remember who works hard on Council and who is only there for their own benefit…let’s make sure we vote in the people that count!

  8. Maybe as citizens of Warrnambool we could all turn up on the day and enjoy this, after all we are paying for it.

  9. I used to attend the Dulux marquee right beside the WCC marquee , Freshly shucked oysters I thought were a little over the top for the WCC dignitaries , Dulux has since pulled out due to the rising costs associated with staging the marquee yet the WCC continue their lavish style even in this harsh economic climate , reminds me of pigs at a trough ??

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