October 2, 2013 10:01:32 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
Columbus councilmen will have to fill out a travel request application and have it approved by the board prior to traveling on the city's dime moving forward.
The two-page application process, which councilmen unanimously approved during Tuesday's city council meeting, includes filling out blank spots where councilmen must indicate the event, purpose of the trip, departure and return dates and type of transportation. It also must include an itemized estimate of travel costs.
Prior to Tuesday's implementation of the new policy, council travel requests were generally lumped into consent agendas, meaning voted on with little or no discussion.
Councilmen also approved a set of agenda submission guidelines during Tuesday's meeting that tighten the timeframe during which an item can be added to the agenda. That change came about after councilman Charlie Box asked city attorney Jeff Turnage to draft an agenda guideline policy last month. With approval of the new guidelines, councilmen and the mayor must submit any agenda items by the Wednesday prior to each regular meeting. The agenda has to be submitted to the city's information technology department by noon the next day and posted to the city's website by 5 p.m.
Late-notice items can be added to the agenda at the meeting by a two-thirds vote. Councilmen can also table late-notice items with a two-thirds vote.
The travel request change was initially called for last week by councilman Bill Gavin, who said more transparency was needed, particularly from elected officials, on how much taxpayer money was being spent on lodging, food and travel expenses.
Approval of the new policies did not curb discussion on a recent trip councilmen Joseph Mickens, Marty Turner and Kabir Karriem took to Washington, D.C., for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's 43rd Annual Legislative Conference.
Gavin pointed out that on Sept. 3 the council approved for the three to use city funds to pay for the Sept. 18-21 trip, which ended up costing $5,385.85. But on Tuesday, an item was on the agenda to ratify $1,683.89 worth of expenses to pay for an additional day.
Gavin questioned why the city should have to pay for the extra day, which was Sept. 22.
"On Sept. 3, you changed the airline tickets and the hotel reservations to reflect the extra day," Gavin said. "Only the dates of Sept. 18-21 were presented to this council."
"I think it was just a mere oversight," Turner said. "I understand your concern."
Gavin reiterated that the extra day was never approved by the council or mayor.
Mickens explained that there were events taking place on the 21st, including a late afternoon awards dinner featuring President Barack Obama as a speaker that he was able to attend, and there was no way the councilmen could arrive back in Columbus before the 22nd.
"I want to make one thing perfectly clear," Mickens replied. "What was the price of the trip when the council met, that price didn't change...it was paid for before we got to D.C. When the council got there we put on no more prices. The only prices that added were per diem...I'm not pointing the finger at nobody, but the councilmen did not add one day to that deal. It was paid for when we got there. The room was paid for, the airfare was paid for, so I can't see what the council did wrong."
In Tuesday's public file, there were no receipts of hotel, airfare, registration, mileage or meal expenses related to the trip.
Mickens then deferred to Turnage, who said he could see where there was a misunderstanding about what the council approved Sept. 3.
"If you're (in D.C.) until 9:30 you can't come back that night," he said. "The policy the mayor and council just approved will eliminate any reasonable chance for there being any more misunderstanding going forward."
Gavin said he respectfully disagreed with Turnage and Mickens.
"On Sept. 3, when you all changed the hotel reservations and the airline reservations, it cost $200 extra per ticket to change those airline reservations. This extra day cost the city an extra $1,683.89," Gavin said. "I have before me the items you all had been signed up for ... there were no events that were originally signed up for in your application to attend on (the 21st), so I don't see why you could not have come back."
Mickens said adding the dinner featuring Obama was done because he was able to get a ticket, which cost $700, to the event. The financial statement provided to The Dispatch does not indicate the city paid for him to attend. He said he was "very fortunate" to get a ticket.
"I understand what you're saying and I applaud what you're saying," Mickens said. "We don't have the right to add on to no expenditure once we leave the city. We don't even have a credit card...neither one of us made a reservation for no airplane ticket."
"We're a governing body," Gavin said. "The council voted on the trip for the 18th through the 21st -- not the 22nd. That's what we voted on. Only on the day of the council meeting did these plans get changed. Why could you not have presented that to council at that time?"
Karriem passed councilmen a copy of the original letter, saying the conference was the 18th through the 21st and not until the 21st.
"We went to the conference. There were activities on the 21st...the conference was still going on that Saturday. I don't want to give the impression like we stayed another night," Karriem said.
"There were no events that you all were scheduled to go to on Saturday," Gavin said. "There were events on Saturday. I do not disagree with that."
Turnage said if the councilmen were on official business on the 21st and returned the day after official business was over, that would not trigger any illegal expenditure.
After more discussion, the council voted 4-2 for the city to pay for the extra day. Gavin and Box were opposed.
In other business, the board:
■ Approved a contract with Columbus-based Air Environmental to conduct an environmental survey and asbestos testing on the city hall building for $2,856. The survey is associated with the city's application for federal grant funding that would be used to restore the building;
■ Approved budget amendments to the 2012-13 budget, which include $350,033 in cash out to cover shortages in sales tax revenue, police fines, utility expenses and garage supplies. City chief financial officer Milton Rawle said the overages will not necessitate a dip into reserves;
■ Approved a request to hire an IT specialist and tire and oil service technician.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.