Almanac

News - December 11, 2013

Keith continues to lead council in expense reimbursement requests

by Sandy Brundage

Turns out you can spend more taxpayer money attending local dinners than on a trip to Ireland: For the third time in a row, Kirsten Keith tops the list in reimbursement requests by Menlo Park council members, according to city records obtained by the Almanac.

During the 15-month period from September 2012 to November 2013, Ms. Keith expensed $2,587. This was an increase from the 15-month period a year earlier, when she expensed $2,319.

Highlights from the 26 requests she made during the current period: Council of Cities dinners, $540; Progress Seminar, $537.57; nonprofit events, $285; California Bike Summit, $110; and North Fair Oaks community festival, $75.

The five council members each receive a $640 monthly salary and an unlimited pool of city funds for reimbursement for related events, according to City Manager Alex McIntyre. They may either ask the city to pay in advance, or request reimbursement; if a trip involves out-of-state travel, reimbursement must be approved by the council during a regular meeting.

Ms. Keith, who ran for county supervisor in 2012 — little more than a year after being elected to a four-year term on the council — appears to be burnishing a high regional profile.

She told the Almanac that collaboration with other jurisdictions is an important part of creating the best ideas for Menlo Park.

"For example, the Grand Boulevard Initiative meetings that I attend provide a venue to discuss how we will revitalize the 43 miles of El Camino Real from San Jose to South San Francisco. Elected officials, residents, transportation experts, developers and nonprofits come together to discuss how we will make this a reality," Ms. Keith said.

"Since we don't live in a bubble, but share borders with cities, this is another example of great collaboration between cities. It is important to develop solutions together."

She noted that regional bodies she serves on, such as the City/County Association of Governments and Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, deal with issues like traffic and water that cross jurisdictional boundaries.

A repeat attendee at the annual "Progress Seminar," Ms. Keith said it provides yet another opportunity for collaboration. The annual event, co-sponsored by county chambers of commerce, "brings together business, government, and community leaders for informal discussions about regional issues, and opportunities to meet those issues," according to the website.

Monthly Council of Cities dinners provide a venue for county elected officials to discuss regional issues and "gather information to improve our communities," the councilwoman said.

Along with Ms. Keith and then-councilwoman Kelly Fergusson, Catherine Carlton attended a Council of Cities dinner in Pacifica in November 2012 — after being elected, but prior to being sworn in.

City Attorney Bill McClure said he wasn't sure if the question had ever come up before, but the $45 expenditure followed Menlo Park guidelines. "It is my understanding that the city manager encourages incoming council members to attend such functions to begin to familiarize themselves with topical issues and to meet council members from other communities to build their network and that as a council member elect, it is an appropriate expenditure for reimbursement."

Ms. Carlton requested reimbursement for $1,114.93 to attend an academy for new mayors and council members in January 2013 . The remainder of her nine reimbursement requests were for monthly dinners and the Progress Seminar. Total: $2,022.93.

Fellow council newcomer Ray Mueller also went to the academy — $917.14 — but skipped the seminar. He expensed one Council of Cities dinner and a retirement dinner for the Ravenswood school district superintendent. Total for three reimbursement requests: $1,012.14.

Mr. Ohtaki, who managed an official trip to Galway, Ireland, without spending a dime of taxpayer money, was reimbursed $670.12 for a regional conference on housing policy; the annual League of California Cities conference; and a few Council of Cities dinners out, with most of the money spent while serving as mayor of Menlo Park this year.

He paid the airfare to Ireland himself, and enjoyed a free hotel room and transportation courtesy of Galway's mayor, he said.

Veteran Councilman Rich Cline submitted zero reimbursement requests, as has been his habit during the past several years.

Finally, Ms. Fergusson, who averaged $1,996 in annual reimbursements during eight years on the council, expensed $135 toward the end of her last term in 2012, while fellow outgoing Councilman Andy Cohen expensed $50.

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