On Aug. 29, about six weeks after its latest delegation returned from the Farnborough International Airshow in the United Kingdom, the city of Mobile released financial records related to the trip. The city sent five elected or appointed officials who joined around 30 others from Mobile County and the state on the economic development mission geared toward recruiting suppliers for the new Airbus final assembly line at Brookley Aeroplex, which is scheduled to be operational next year.
Attending on behalf of the city were Mayor Sandy Stimpson and George Talbot, his director of Communications and External Affairs, as well as City Councilors Gina Gregory, Fred Richardson and C.J. Small. According to expense reports, the group spent a total of $21,538.08 on the trip, from a low of $2,651.14 for Stimpson to a high of $5,453.67 for Richardson.
The discrepancy is predominantly attributed to the free airfare provided to Stimpson and Talbot courtesy of the city’s Industrial Development Board and the three councilors, with airfare from their own discretionary funds, spent totals within a range of $192.07 of each other.
Neither the expense reports for the latest Farnborough trip nor preliminary estimates were available at the time Lagniappe published a July 9 cover story on the extensive travels of Richardson, whose trip in July marked his sixth trip across the Atlantic to network at international air shows.
Over the past several weeks, the newspaper has reviewed recent travel records for the City Council, mayor’s office and Mobile County Commission – spanning a period from 2009 until last month – revealing that taxpayers fronted at least $226,220 for elected and appointed officials’ travel during that time. For the purpose of this story, a “travel record” or “trip” was defined as an overnight stay that generated an expense of public funds.
The total may be conservative, as some officials’ expenses were not clear enough to tabulate and others withdrew funds from accounts not included in specific public records requests. On other occasions, expenses may have been partially or fully reimbursed by the person taking the trip or sponsor organizations. Often, flight expenses were absent because they are paid through separate accounts to a travel agency.
Similar to numbers Lagniappe published in July representing years 2005-2009, Richardson was also the most prolific traveler of the council in the five years since, spending almost three times as much on travel than the second-highest spender, Council President Gina Gregory. However, Richardson was outspent by former Mayor Sam Jones during the same period.
From 2009 until he was voted out of office last year, Jones spent at least $42,523 on travel expenses, often attending the same trips as Richardson. Meanwhile, Richardson spent at least $39,282 while Gregory spent at least $16,904.
The three-member Mobile County Commission spent at least $102,026 on travel since 2009, according to records. Leading was Commissioner Merceria Ludgood with $41,673 in reports and Commissioner Connie Hudson with $31,111 in reports, followed by former Commissioner Mike Dean and his successor Commissioner Jerry Carl with $15,298 and $11,999 in reported expenditures, respectively. Former Commissioner Stephen Nodine chalked up $1,944 worth of travel expenditures between 2009-2010, when he resigned.
Many of the trips, from both city and county representatives, were in-state, often traveling to Montgomery or other metropolitan areas for professional or organizational training. The vast majority of the County Commission’s travels were for events hosted by the Association of County Commissions of Alabama (ACCA), the National Association of Counties (NACo), or Auburn University’s Alabama Local Government Training Institute (ALGTI). Last month, Ludgood was elected president of the ACCA.
Other occasional trips are generated from local government’s affiliation with the Chamber of Commerce, which hosts annual or biannual “leadership exchanges” to cities such as St. Louis, Missouri (2014), Washington, D.C. (2012), Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (2011) and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (2010). Those trips, organized by the Chamber, usually cost a flat fee of $2,500 per participant, but attendees may – and frequently do – incur additional expenses for ground transportation or light meals.
TIMELINE OF TRAVEL FOR THE MOBILE COUNTY COMMISSION 2010-2014
Commission President Connie Hudson said the county has approximately 28 different trade group or professional associations comprising not just the ACCA or NACo, but also finance, engineering, risk management, administrative and professional groups, which are utilized by both the Commission and county staff. Hudson said the state also mandates certain training for commissioners.
Travel by staff members of the county or city was not examined in great detail for this story, but it should be noted that members of the City Clerk’s office, county and city attorneys and members of the License and Revenue commissions travel occasionally for training.
Aside from trips to European air shows, Mobile County Commissioners generally limited the number of times they left the county for economic development purposes.
Two trips that appear to have paid off in some respects include a “low key” meeting in Montgomery between Airbus and local officials in December 2011 to discuss the company’s incentives package and construction timeline and a January 2013 trip to Dallas, Texas to recruit the 2021 women’s bowling championships to the convention center.
Hudson explained the closed-door meeting with Airbus included the governor as well as state and local officials.
“An enormous amount of discussion occurs in private to craft an economic development agreement that involves many parties,” Hudson said. “In the end, all these meetings and negotiations brought to Mobile County the first Airbus assembly facility in the Western Hemisphere.”
The bowling championship bid involved a presentation from a group of local officials that included, in addition to Hudson, Danny Corte, Executive Director Mobile Sports Authority; Cheryl Gee, Mobile Convention Center/SMG Director of Sales & Marketing; Derrick Williams, Senior Sales Manager, Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel; Brenda Howard, President, Mobile USBC Women’s Bowling Association and Linda Wehrle, National Sales Manager for the Mobile Bay Convention & Visitor’s Bureau.
Hudson called the collaboration “a great victory … because there were multiple communities vying for the business.”
In the end, she said, the event is anticipated to be worth $40 million to the Mobile County economy.
Regarding the recent trip to Farnborough, some denounced the size of the delegation Alabama sent. In 2008, 12 municipal employees traveled to study Miami-Dade County’s paperless court system. That two-day trip was undertaken by former Chief of Staff Al Stokes, former Executive Director of Administrative Services and Community Affairs Barbara Drummond, Assistant City Attorney Flo Kessler, Municipal Judge Holmes Whiddon, three other representative of the court, plus four Information Technology staff and a contract employee.
The group spent $13,488 on the one-night stay, including $1,694 on a charter bus for ground transportation.
Whiddon later explained that the city’s IT Department had been evaluating software programs from private vendors which may serve the needs of the court, but “the IT Department and Court were unable to prepare in-house programs for electronic processing of cases for the criminal and traffic dockets due to lack of funding and resources.”
Whiddon added that the trip may have resulted in putting programs in place for the electronic payments of traffic tickets, for the automated paperless magistrate/police officer swearing of the electronic traffic tickets and for the electronic transmittal of traffic tickets for docket preparation, but “the in-court handling of cases for arraignments and trials continues to be done with paper files as do court clerk functions for all the post court docket work.”
Other unusual expenses deducted from City Hall travel budgets in previous years include: $1,398 for memberships to the Amatuer Athletic Union for seven adults and 91 children, $487.41 for seven framed copies of a J.D. Crowe cartoon, $77.63 for a dozen red roses for Drummond’s birthday and $20 for gifts and mementos for former Mobile Police Chief Phillip Garrett’s retirement in 2009.
Sometimes, the records tell a different story. A county expense report from October 2011 simply indicates that License Commissioner Kim Hastie traveled to Madison County, Alabama to “visit License Commission facilities.” Her expenses totaled just $127.92, but included $47.49 for a car rental, $11.26 for gas and $66.87 for a meal for herself and consultant Victor Crawford.
The relationship between Hastie and Crawford has also been detailed in recent editions of Lagniappe, where the newspaper found that Crawford, an IT consultant with an airplane and a pilot’s license, has flown several elected or appointed officials to various engagements. Presumably, he flew Hastie to Madison County in October 2011.
Occasionally, expenses don’t pass muster and the city or county’s finance department will require reimbursement. Before he resigned from the City Council in 2012 to take a job in Boston, former Councilman Jermaine Burrell was asked to repay $773 in expenses to a dry cleaners, a vision center and a gas station. City Councilwoman Bess Rich once reimbursed the city $170 for purchasing travel insurance on a trip — in violation of city policy.
Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl had his family join him in Hamburg, Germany on the tail end of a recent trip to visit the Airbus facility there, but out of convenience, kept the hotel room he booked with the county. Carl reimbursed a total of $1,050.60 for the additional expense.
The records also revealed the entire County Commission attended the same out-of-town trips on at least six occasions: a NACo conference in Washington, D.C. in March 2011, a NACo conference in Portland, Oregon in July 2011, the ACCA annual conference in Orange Beach in August 2011, the 2012 Farnborough International Airshow, the ACCA annual conference in Orange Beach in August 2012 and the Paris Airshow in June 2013.
Hudson said the trips are “specifically excluded” from open meetings laws and do not constitute an unannounced quorum.
“Each Commissioner makes the determination as to whether they should travel to attend meetings or seminars based on the associated value to the county for their attendance at such events,” Hudson explained.
Carl went further, adding the Commission is “always aware” of open meetings laws, and said his own conversations with Hudson or Ludgood outside of scheduled meetings are limited to topics such as family or current events.
“We don’t talk business,” he said.
As Lagniappe previously reported, economic conditions forced the City Council to recently eliminate a line item for travel from its budget. Since, councilors have used discretionary or “district funds” to finance trips on behalf of the city.
However, the proposed 2015 budget includes a 60 percent increase for each council member’s discretionary budget, from $25,000 to $40,000. The mayor’s office also has a $25,000 discretionary fund.
Council President Gina Gregory gave a couple of reasons for the proposed increase, primarily to pay for postage to notify constituents of district-wide meetings. Gregory said previously, $53,000 was set aside in a separate account for postage, but that too has been eliminated. Discretionary funds can also be used for projects or sponsorships within a district.
According to an interactive timeline accompanying this article online, County Commission travel appears to have peaked in 2011-2012. Hudson said the decrease could be attributed to the conclusion of the Airbus agreement, but didn’t discount travel as an economic development tool.
“In the end, all these trips serve legitimate purposes and the expenses are appropriate,” Hudson concluded. “County Commissioners have to be educated in wide-ranging matters from budgets to FEMA reimbursements to debris removal and infrastructure development. Laws and best-practices are constantly changing. Most of our trips relate to professional development that entail days of breakout seminars on topics germane to the whole county as well as to specific districts.
All of us need and value this education. As for our trips for economic development, the results speak for themselves. The return on investment is high and enduring.”