The Menlo Park City Council may update its policies on travel funded by taxpayers and third parties at its meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 11.
If the council opts to follow staff recommendations, it could set clearer rules about what travel can be reimbursed at taxpayers' expense. The council may also develop clearer guidelines about how to deal with potential conflicts or ethical challenges that arise from international travel funded by third parties.
Some state laws already govern council reimbursement procedures: Council members may be reimbursed for expenses incurred while doing their official duties, based on an adopted city policy. Cities that provide compensation or expense payment for council members must require council members to complete ethics training, according to a staff report. To ensure public funds are used carefully, council members must submit expense reports, which are public records, and they must accept group travel rates when offered. They also must provide reports on the meetings they attend at city expense at the next regular council meeting, staff said.
Under the state's Political Reform Act, council members are not permitted to accept gifts valued at more than $470 from a single source in a calendar year, with a few exceptions, such as if the expense is paid for by a state, local or federal government agency, or by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
The city's lack of clear guidelines regarding how council members should present themselves while traveling abroad, under what circumstances they should accept travel funding from third parties, and which third parties should be permitted to fund council members' international travel became apparent in recent months.
In March, Councilwoman Kirsten Keith traveled to China as part of a delegation with the mayors from Mountain View and Dublin. During that trip, she was present at a signing ceremony for a memorandum of understanding that appeared to formalize support for a business deal to establish a tech incubator and finance center in Mountain View. While the precise details of the memorandum aren't public, the incident raised some public concern about the role council members should play in representing or appearing to represent the city abroad, particularly without advance council knowledge.
In Menlo Park, lawyer George Fisher filed complaints in July with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, alleging that council members Keith and Catherine Carlton mischaracterized travel reimbursements they received from organizations they said were 501(c)(3) nonprofits. Fisher alleged he had not been able to verify that those organizations met the proper nonprofit tax-exempt status, and raised concerns that those contributions may not be exempt from the state's $470 gift cap.
Carlton reported that she accidentally put the wrong organization name on her form and has corrected the form to list the right tax-exempt nonprofit that reimbursed her travel. Keith said the commission had given clearance for local elected officials to accept reimbursements for similar delegation trips. The commission has not yet determined the validity of Fisher's complaints.
The last time the council's travel policy was updated was in March 1991, according to a staff report. The policy also applies to city employees.
Using a model policy developed by the Institute for Local Government, city staffers are proposing a number of changes to Menlo Park's current travel policy.
Expenses would be reimbursed in situations that involve discussions with regional, state or federal government representatives about city-adopted policies; educational seminars; activities with regional, state or national organizations that have to do with city interests; recognition for someone's service to the city; city events; or strategies to attract or retain businesses in the city.
Any other expense would require prior council approval, as would any international travel or expense reimbursement exceeding $2,000 per trip.
Reimbursement would not be provided for personal time on any trip; political or charitable events and contributions; family, guest or pet expenses; entertainment expenses; non-mileage personal car expenses; or personal losses incurred while on city business.
In addition to the staff-recommended policy, the council may consider further restrictions and policies to apply to travel by elected officials.
One big consideration is about the ethical issues that could arise from accepting third-party travel reimbursements.
The council could consider prohibiting members from accepting travel payments from third parties, requiring council permission before a member accepts a third-party travel payment, or adopting standards for what kind of reports members should give if they do accept payment for a trip from a third party.
Another question is whether a council member should be permitted to speak on behalf of the city at non-city events. However, there is already a provision in the council's procedures manual that directs members to clearly indicate they are speaking only for themselves at non-city events, and not the council as a whole.
The council could also consider whether to establish a "sister city" travel policy. In July, the council approved a one-time expenditure, not to exceed $3,000, for an employee to chaperone a delegation of Menlo Park kids on a sister city trip to Bizen, Japan. Generally, the city doesn't reimburse council members for travel related to sister cities, but it does reimburse for staff travel if it's approved by the council first, according to staff.
The council will begin its regular meeting onTuesday, Sept. 11, at 7 p.m. in the City Council chambers at 701 Laurel St., in the Menlo Park Civic Center.