Editorial: Council's travel policy woefully lackingThe brouhaha set off when Menlo Park City Council member Kelly Fergusson announced that she was traveling to Washington, D.C., to represent the city's position on high-speed rail — and expected the city to pay $400 a night for two nights in a first-class hotel — has uncovered a woefully inadequate council travel policy.
After submitting a public records request with the Menlo Park city clerk, the Almanac received City Council travel records going back to 2004. The documents show that, since her election that year, Ms. Fergusson was by far the city's most frequent traveler, racking up more than $12,000 in expenses. Former mayor and council member Heyward Robinson ran up the largest single bill — $3,500 for one three-day trip to Washington, D.C., in 2009, which included a $1,200 plane ticket.
The city sets aside $10,000 each year to fund council travel expenses. It is loosely administered by city staff, who simply reimburse members when they submit receipts for in-state travel. A council vote is required for the city to pay for out-of-state travel, although it is rare for the council to turn down a travel expense request from a colleague. It should also be said that council members are expected to travel to routine meetings, although lobbying in Washington, D.C., has not been a common occurrence.
In light of Ms. Fergusson's costly trip and a council policy with few controls, it is time to rewrite the policy and get control of council travel at taxpayers' expense. For starters, rather than approve travel payments after the fact, trips should be approved in advance by a council majority for in-state and out-of-state travel. And, rather than allowing members carte blanche to run up whatever expenses they wish, including staying at expensive hotels when many others are available at much lower rates, the city should simply set a daily reimbursement limit. Expenses over that limit would not be eligible for reimbursement.
In most cases, council members travel to attend regular meetings of the League of California Cities, which are generally thought to be worthwhile. But Ms. Fergusson's trip to Washington, D.C., accompanied by the city's lobbyist to address high-speed rail issues, should have been thoroughly discussed in advance by the council. In this situation, the public should have received a clear idea of what message the council wanted to convey to congressional representatives and other federal officials.
Ms. Fergusson announced her trip toward the end of a very late council meeting, and although colleague Kirsten Keith was not convinced a member needed to accompany lobbyist Ravi Mehta, no one asked Ms. Fergusson to remain behind.
Other issues surfaced about the trip, including Ms. Fergusson's alleged conflict of interest because she is employed by Siemens, a company that wants to work on the state's high-speed rail project. While there may be the appearance of a potential conflict, Ms. Fergusson's job at Siemens, a huge German-based conglomerate, is far removed from the company division that would bid on a rail project. She has always voted with the council majority on the rail issue, including the vote to join two lawsuits over the matter. In addition, City Attorney Bill McClure said he saw no conflict of interest to date.
It is too late to call Ms. Fergusson back from her latest trip, but there is an easy way for council members to show their displeasure: Simply refuse to approve her reimbursement request for the expenses she incurred, including charges for a $400-a-night hotel room. Such an action would send a clear message to all members that such trips must be thoroughly vetted by the full council before they are eligible for reimbursement.