Council looks to tighten travel rules

Aug. 20, 2013 @ 06:34 PM

After essentially having complete discretion over how it spends taxpayer dollars to travel on city business, the City Council now wants to adopt a policy governing its use of the funds.
The decision comes shortly after revelations about city funds being used in the past to pay for the companion travel costs of an elected official and a request by one council member who owes the city more than $32,000 to take a $2,500 cross-country trip at the city’s expense.
The council is expected to consider a draft of the new guidelines in two weeks. It opted to freeze its travel budget until the policy is in place. Council has broad authority to manage and direct how travel expenditures are made, but it’s never had a policy that regulates its own travel.
“We should have had one for a long time, but I think it just has reached the point where there is so much ambiguity in regard to what is and what isn’t allowed,” said Councilwoman Becky Smothers.
Last week, The High Point Enterprise reported that Councilman Foster Douglas asked city officials to arrange a trip for him to Seattle to attend the National League of Cities conference in November at a cost of $2,500. Douglas has a $32,216.35 unpaid federal judgment he owes the city stemming from an unsuccessful lawsuit he brought in 2002.
Revelations about Douglas’ request followed another report in the Enterprise about city funds being used to pay for the airfare of one of Mayor Bernita Sims’ sisters who accompanied her to Boston for a National League of Cities event in November 2012.
Emails showed that city officials repeatedly asked Sims about getting her sister’s travel costs reimbursed to the city, which was done in February 2013.
Some High Point elected leaders, as well as their counterparts from other local governments across the state and the nation, often travel to North Carolina League of Municipalities and National League of Cities conferences.
Council members say attending the events gives them opportunities to network and bring back ideas that may be beneficial to the city. Having a presence at conferences also gives High Point a voice in policy debates and can help it leverage federal and state dollars, city leaders said.
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the city budgeted $13,500 for council travel and spent $13,796.76. Some city expenses are reimbursed for council members who serve on the boards of the two organizations.
“Some council members do travel, and there are things council members need to go see and participate in, because there is a bigger world outside of High Point,” said City Manager Strib Boynton. “Historically — and I’m looking back 15, 16 years here — there hasn’t been any real abuse of council travel. It’s always been pretty close to what’s been budgeted.”
It’s unclear at this point what kinds of checks, if any, the policy might have.
Councilman Jason Ewing has suggested a requirement that council members and city staff be current on any debt to the city in order to be eligible for travel or expense reimbursement.
The issue of companion travel expenses also figures to be part of the policy.
Boynton said, as a general rule, the city does not pay for a council member or city official to take a spouse, other family member or companion with them on a city business-related trip. Although it’s rare, as a matter of practice, if the city does pay for companion travel, “we expect immediate reimbursement as defined by the time our monthly statement comes in. That usually means 30 days. With very rare exception, everyone reimburses us immediately.”
Sims said the policy needs to be clear and applied equally.
“I don’t think a committee ought to be making exceptions. You make a policy and move on, because then that puts council in a position where you are approving or disapproving a council member’s travel,” she said. “I don’t think you set up a situation where there could be ill will because council chose arbitrarily to do one thing for one and not for another.”
Councilwoman Judy Mendenhall said she thinks the policy should prevent council members from spending more than the $1,500 they’re each individually allocated in the travel budget.
“I think there should be a per-council-member allowance that is adhered to, and if you go over that, you are on your own,” she said.