September 4, 2013 9:53:52 AM
Nathan Gregory - email@example.com
Three Columbus council members are going to a Washington, D.C., conference later this month, but a dispute over whether taxpayers should pay for the trip took place during Tuesday's city council meeting.
Councilmen ultimately voted 4-2 in favor of approving travel costs for Joseph Mickens, Marty Turner and Kabir Karriem to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's 43rd Annual Legislative Conference. A letter from Mayor Robert Smith in the board's packet requested approval for the councilmen to travel and approve payment for cost of airfare, taxi fare, lodging, mileage and reimbursement of meal expenses for all three councilmen.
A cost estimate is not provided in the letter.
Councilman Bill Gavin asked that the matter be discussed. He questioned the trip's purpose.
"It's an educational trip," Karriem said.
"Is it classes that you'll be going to?" Gavin asked.
"It's just like any other conference that we set aside $27,000 a year to attend," Karriem replied. "My question to you is what issues did you have with this particular conference?"
"I wasn't invited," Gavin said. "This is the Congressional Black Caucus foundation. We as city leaders, I think, should be trying to build unity within the city both in whites and blacks rather than separating ourselves as city leaders trying to go to a black caucus or a white caucus."
Gavin said he doesn't come to the council asking to have taxpayers reimburse him for attending a conference that's predominately white.
"It's 2013," Karriem said. "We should be ashamed to even have this conversation. Just because it has the word 'black' in it doesn't mean it's a bad thing."
Karriem added that the discussion shouldn't be taking place a week after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. He added that the conference is open to everybody and is an educational opportunity.
"We all know that there are problems that are unique to the African-American community," he said. "That's who we serve as council members up here. Every one of us has black people in our wards, so I don't know why this is even an issue and we brought this before the public tonight. That's really a shame."
The two began talking over each other before the mayor had each of them talk one at a time.
Karriem said Gavin was welcome to attend the conference.
Then, speaking on saving taxpayer money, Karriem briefly brought up a topic discussed during planning sessions for next year's city budget -- going paperless.
"I was told that we shouldn't go paperless because (another councilman said) 'I still need to read on paper.' That would have saved the city thousands of dollars," Karriem said. "The opportunities are out there for everybody. It's up to each one of these council members to do what they need to do to best serve their constituents."
Gavin then began to speak before Karriem interrupted and Smith and Gavin had to remind him Gavin had the floor.
"I not only serve white people. I serve black people," Gavin said. "That's my job, and I like to go to conferences and things that include everyone. What is the projected cost of this conference?"
"I don't know," Karriem said. "It's $75 to go to the conference. You got the same information I've got."
Gavin said a "rough guess" was that it would cost a minimum of $2,000 for the three councilmen to attend the conference, meaning $6,000 at least total.
"We've had to tell public employees we can't give them a raise," he said. "We don't have enough money to give to the (Columbus Lowndes Public) Library extra money ... but we can find $6,000 to go to a conference."
"It's no different than the Mississippi Municipal League conference where we got certified to be public elected officials," Karriem said. "I don't feel like I should have to debate about this conference just because it has the word 'black' in it ... It's really a travesty."
"So what city business will you be conducting?" Gavin asked.
"When you start talking about conditions of health, welfare, public policies, things of that nature, you have to think and not be narrow minded," Karriem said. "We're not trying to re-invent the wheel. We're just trying to find programs that we can bring back home and institute here. I don't feel there's (anything) wrong with that. If there's a program or conference you wanted to attend, how dare I try to challenge that if it's in the best interest of your constituents and the city of Columbus."
Ultimately, Karriem, Turner, Mickens and councilman Gene Taylor voted in favor, with Gavin and councilman Charlie Box in dissent.
In other business, the board:
■ Held a public hearing to discuss the budget for the 2014 fiscal year. The revised version projects $22,847,659.89 in expenditures and $22,924,451.58 in revenues, a $76,791.69 overage in revenue. No citizens spoke for or against the proposed budget. The council will meet again Sept. 10 to approve the budget;
■ Approved a request from Dorothy Dowdell of Lawrence Transit to install shelters in city right-of-way;
■ Approved a request from director of federal programs Travis Jones to apply for a Community Heritage Preservation Grant that would be used to renovate City Hall; The $500,000 grant would require a $100,000 match from the city if approved;
■ Hired Wendy Blunt as a municipal court clerk administrator at an annual salary of $34,136;
■ Made Tracy Smith a permanent municipal court clerk with benefits. Clark had not been previously entitled to benefits. Her hourly rate remains $10.40 an hour;
■ Hired Michael Josh Reynolds and Kyle Posey as firefighters.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.