Business trips scrutinized amid tight budgets

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Business trips scrutinized amid tight budgets

With their terms possibly coming to an end in the next few months, more council members have been taking leisurely business trips abroad despite the fact that their governments are suffering from tight budgets and a lack of resources.

These visits have recently drawn considerable criticism from political watchers, who say that they are merely an excuse for sightseeing and tourism rather than information gathering or regional exchanges.

Making matters worse is that many local administrations don’t even have the funds to cover basic welfare policies and programs in their constituencies.

Currently, regulations from the Ministry of Security and Public Administration stipulate that local officials can receive on average up to 2 million won ($1,892) from their local administration for trips abroad. The idea is that most representatives will use up that budget sometime before their terms come to an end. And with local elections in June just months away, most councilmen have been taking advantage of this policy before campaign season gets under way in March.

If local lawmakers are not re-elected in the summer polls, they will no longer be privy to those funds.

But despite a call from the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission in 2011 that lawmakers limit these trips, so far only about 50 local governments out of 241 have minded that request.

These treks overseas are largely seen as tourism oriented, which goes against regulations. Critics have long argued that the regulations themselves are too vague, and that reports regarding these trips - due 30 days later - can easily be doctored.

A group of nine assemblymen from Hapcheon County in South Gyeongsang headed by the local council’s chairman, 59-year-old Heo Hong-koo, a lawmaker of the Saenuri Party, is currently on a weeklong visit to Turkey until Thursday.

The report they submitted claimed the purpose of the trip was to examine the “conservation of cultural and tourism-based facilities.”

However, in reality, officials mostly spent their time touring the cities of Istanbul, Pamukkale and Cappadocia, and actual time spent meeting with culture and tourism officials or discussing new policies took up just a fraction of the itinerary.

Six employees accompanied the assemblymen, and Hapcheon County spent more than 41.1 million won on the trip.

Likewise, a group of nine assemblymen from the Daejeon Metropolitan Council, including Kim Jong-cheon of the Democratic Party, who is the head of the welfare committee, recently returned from a four-day trip to Harbin in northeast China.

The purpose of visit, the representatives claimed, was to learn about multicultural and minority policies and to “experience” the Harbin Ice Festival.

Daejeon city government spent 12.2 million won on the venture, with the assemblymen bearing the rest of the expenses, an additional 200,000 won per person.

In response to criticism that their journey was simply for leisure, Nam Jin-geun, of the Daejeon city council replied: “It depends on your viewpoint. What we saw and heard there can be used to advance our administration.”

Other local council members in South Jeolla; Seo District in Daegu; Hwaseong in Gyeonggi; and Asan in South Chuncheong are also slated to go on a string of business trips abroad soon.

In contrast, local administrations this year have lacked the funds to follow through with various policies and have slashed budgets left and right, cutting back on programs that could greatly benefit their demographics.

Kim Jin-chul, the head of the Seo District council in Daegu, for example, along with eight assemblymen and five employees, departed yesterday for a five-day trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong, where their itinerary includes stops to museums and traditional markets.

The district bore the entire expense of the trip, at 26 million won. Yet Seo District is just one area of many that doesn’t have enough funds to cover free lunches for its students.

It could only afford to provide free lunches in nine out of 17 elementary schools and in two out of nine middle schools.

“We know that budget is tight,” said Assemblyman Kim, “but to expand the experiences of our assemblymen, it is necessary to research advanced examples.”

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