Whether it’s in the private or public sector, travel expenses are always controversial. In private businesses people are often on very strict per diems, have to stay in el cheapo motels and employ second-tier hookers. Then again there are also some companies that let employees live like Henry XIII on the corporate credit card. At the end of the day all that matters is whether the company is willing and able to afford such expenses.
But when it comes to travel by public officials and employees, controversy always swirls. In a country trillions in debt, in one of the poorest states in the union, in a city still trying to find its way out of massive financial mismanagement by the previous administration, jumping on planes to cruise around the globe is certain to bring grousing from the electorate. When things are super tight you have to be careful not to get carried away.
So most public officials try to be judicious about their travel – even if they really want to go globetrotting on our dime. It’s not usually politically smart to be the one with your passport stamped the most times, especially at the local level. Most of us understand governors and mayors making lots of trips, but the further it gets down the political food chain the more you wonder if someone just likes tiny hotel soaps and shampoos.
Throw out that conventional wisdom when examining the travel of Mobile’s City Council Vice President Fred Richardson, who not only travels more than everyone else, he brags about it and promises to do it more. But then he gets his shorts in a knot when this newspaper writes about what he’s spent traveling the world. Richardson thinks he’s been picked on and treated unfairly and claims Lagniappe should have written about everyone else.
Of course he’s right about that last part. And we would have if we could have gotten the records, but Fred’s political friend, City Clerk Lisa Lambert, has dragged that out, only getting us a bit of what we asked for. In fact, the last records we got from her had trips listed for everyone BUT Richardson and no financial information for anyone. We’ve been asking for these records since the beginning of June folks.
So we’re still trying to piece it all together, and contrary to the councilman’s rantings in chambers and on his Facebook page, there’s no effort to make him special. He’s made himself special because he always seems to have a suitcase in his hand.
What we know is through June he’s been on 83 trips in his 17 years on the council. That’s almost five a year. Over the three-year period we were able to actually get financials for – 2005-2008 – he spent just about $28,000 jetting around the country and the globe 16 times at an average of $1,744.86 per trip. If that average bears out over his entire 83 trips, Councilman MoonPie would have spent just under $145,000 making himself more worldly since joining the council in 1997.
Richardson has pointed out he is currently the longest serving council member and held that out as one of the reasons for his large amount of travel, but by comparison, Reggie Copeland who retired last year and served 28 years spent just $2,801 during the same three years Richardson racked up $28K. Put another way, if Copeland’s annual travel expenses during those three years were averaged out over his 28 years in office, Fred’s three-year tally would still beat Reggie’s nearly three-decade total by more than $1,000.
So I’m not really sure his argument of longevity on the council holds much water. The man clearly just likes to travel.
The City Council used to have a travel budget, but that’s no longer the case. Council members make decisions on whether to spend some of their $25,000 annual discretionary fund to go places. So if Fred’s holding to his averages set during the three-year period we examined, more than $8,300 of that money is being spent so he can eat airplane peanuts.
Is it unfair to wonder if a City Councilman spending a good bit of his discretionary funds to travel the globe is wise? Fred thinks so and has expressed the opinion that his travel has brought thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to Mobile. Of course, as one might expect from someone who constantly refers to himself in the third person, Richardson’s claims border on fantasy. Well, actually I think they live in downtown Fantasy.
In the past week he’s essentially claimed personal responsibility for Austal deciding to build military ships and Airbus coming to Mobile. Anyone who paid any attention to the news as those events unfolded knows Fred Richardson’s name never surfaced as a key negotiator or even a minor one.
Frankly I believe mostly what we’re paying for with Fred’s travel is his own self-aggrandizement. His self-published books are full of bragging about where he’s been.
Look, Richardson is right about one thing – it’s perfectly legal for him to travel all over the place on the taxpayer’s dime. And given that he doesn’t even appear to understand the poor shape of city finances, it’s likely he actually thinks there’s plenty of cash to support his jet-setting ways. Just transfer it from another account, right?
He can also rest assured that by the end of it all, we’re going to print everyone’s travel records – including the remainder of his – and the people of Mobile can decide if they think Fred being a frequent flyer is better than him using his discretionary funds to improve his district.
Richardson has made his political career being a bit of an oddball, and it’s worked for him. Unfortunately these days he seems to want to have a special place in city government where he’s beyond scrutiny. He travels more than anyone else and he’s the only council member to personally carry a city credit card, for some strange reason. But don’t ask about such matters, or it’s some kind of witch-hunt.
At a time when things are so financially tight and the city in particular is trying to take care of issues that have been neglected for years, all of our elected officials ought to be really thinking about whether it’s financially smart to go to Australia to bring back didgeridoos or to Japan just to say you’ve been there.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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