BALLYMONEY Borough Council has come under fire after agreeing to spend £4,500 of ratepayers money to send five representatives to South Africa to take part in celebrations to mark a County Antrim-born Olympic hero.
Former mayors John Finlay and Ian Stevenson, Development Chair Alderman Bill Kennedy, Head of Corporate and Development Services Elizabeth Johnston and David Halliday all flew out last Friday to Porchefstroom.
Porchefstroom was where Kennedy Kane McArthur went to live before the Sweden Games of 1912, where he won gold.
The aim of the three day trip was to allow the borough to be represented in their KK McArthur 100th year celebration dinner and marathon and ‘explore links between the two communities to promote economic and social development’.
According to Council the £4,500 covered travel and “associated expenses” while the South African council hosting the celebrations pledged to cover accommodation costs.
However according to some members the issue was ‘rushed through’ during last Monday’s Full Council meeting, and has since become the talk of the town receiving immense criticism from ratepayers.
Only hours after the motion was passed comments appeared on Facebook siting the visit as a ‘disgrace’ and having ‘no economic benefit’.
Independent councillor Roma McAfee also criticised the spend and labelled it a “jolly”.
“On Monday 5 November a proposal was voted through Ballymoney Borough Council for a delegation to visited South Africa after an invitation was received from Porchefstroom City Council.
“As a late addition to the evening’s agenda this came as a shock to me and unfortunately I failed in my duty to object to it and for this I apologise to the ratepayers of Ballymoney.
“The fact however is that it was a done deal regardless of my individual view, as are unfortunately many other decisions within the Council Chamber.
“Recently Ballymoney Council was one of the only councils in Northern Ireland not to organise any events for Halloween. That department and others struggle to meet their statutory duties due to tight restrictions on budgets yet at the drop of a hat over four thousand pounds is found for this trip. This is an astonishing waste of ratepayers money and the anger and frustration on the street is palpable.
“I made a mistake not speaking up nevertheless I apologise. The reaction from those councillors who are going on this trip however is one of total ignorance and condescension towards the outraged views of local ratepayers.
“It would appear that the enjoyment of a trip to South Africa outweighs the considerations of the local community. No contrived reason will ever justify this trip.
“I live in a deprived area of Ballymoney with many unemployed or on low wages. These people are struggling to make ends meet so you can imagine how they view the council spending four and a half thousand pounds so easily on a jolly to South Africa.”
Agreeing angry ratepayers have branded the trip a “junket” and accused some councillors of “not getting their priorities right”.
Disgruntled locals have voiced their opposition on Facebook and Twitter.
One stated: “Ballymoney town is dying. Possibly the only council not to organise anything for Halloween. Precious little spent on Christmas.
“It’s a fight to get any money for the community/voluntary sector yet at the drop of a hat the Council can find £4500, yes £4500 for five people to go to South Africa this weekend. If the words ‘nose in trough’ comes to mind copy and repaste this status.”
In response someone added: “What possible economic benefit is there of watching a marathon?”
Another said: “No assistance to grit foot paths in the coming months, now we know why...”
Others stated simply: “One word disgrace” and “pointless”.
However on a differing note another explained: “Yes too much spent on this trip but everything in moderation, maybe only a few key players in the McArthur celebrations would have been enough.”
Speaking in relation to the backlash, Ballymoney Council Chief Executive John Dempsey explained: “When the Council meeting agenda was sent out to members of Council on 31 October, it stated that an addendum to the Development Committee report would follow.
“This is commonly done where urgent issues arise after a committee meeting but before its recommendations are considered by Council. A report detailing the extra business was posted out the following day to all members; there were three additional items, all of which were urgent and had arisen after the Development Committee meeting on 17 October.
“On the night of the Council meeting, a further written report on the proposed visit, giving names of the delegation and the estimated cost, was given to each councillor.
“This explained that in addition to the ceremonial aspects of the weekend there would be ‘business meetings to explore links between our two communities to promote economic and social development’. A proposal to send the five delegates was made, seconded and approved without question or comment.”