Wednesday, May 9, 2007

City delays action on travel reimbursement policy

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Gaithersburg City Council voted Monday to delay the planned discussion of a new travel policy for elected officials, preceding nearly an hour of heated debate.

Councilman John B. Schlichting, supported by councilmen Michael A. Sesma and Henry F. Marraffa Jr., said the proposed policy did not represent all the points raised in an April 23 work session held to refine the document and wanted it reworked.

In a related matter, City Manager David B. Humpton said Tuesday that Assistant City Manager Fred Felton will repay the city $50 of a $70 tip left on a $95 meal submitted for reimbursement following the 2005 Maryland Municipal League conference in Ocean City. Neither Humpton or Felton could remember the excessive tip, discovered during a Gazette review of city travel records last month, but agreed it was inappropriate.

As for the travel policy, city officials are considering expanding the scope of the current policy, which addresses only city employees, to include elected officials and their spouses.

Schlichting said the proposed policy falls short of what he expected after officials had hammered out some issues during a work session last month.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, he suggested deferring discussion so city staff could ‘‘review the tape” and later present a resolution that more accurately reflect concerns. He initially declined to discuss those concerns, but later indicated no written explanation should be needed for meals in excess of $65.

Sesma also said the $50 baseline is too low, considering the federal meals and incidentals per diem in most of the Washington, D.C., region is $64.

Mayor Sidney A. Katz, along with Councilwoman Geri Edens, rebuffed the move to stall the talks. Katz said his memory of the work session must differ from the other councilmembers’ and that he and the council ‘‘need to discuss the merits” of the policy.

However, on Schlichting’s motion, the council voted 3-1 to strike the item from the agenda, with Edens the dissenter. Council Vice President Stanley J. Alster was absent.

The idea of revising and expanding the city travel policy arose earlier this year after reports that taxpayers have paid more than $7,000 since May 2005 for elected officials to bring their spouses with them on trips to city-related conferences. It is a practice uncommon in most other Maryland municipalities.

The Gazette review of city travel expenses also shows that some city leaders, while traveling on city business, have dined on meals of up to $80 each and were compensated for alcoholic beverages.

The travel policy tabled for discussion Monday would prevent reimbursement for alcohol, support spousal travel only to the annual National League of Cities and Maryland Municipal League main conferences and put an end to $80 meals by offering a daily per diem of $50. The per diem figure could increase to $65 if accompanied with receipts, while the traveler would cover further expenses, unless the city manager approves ‘‘exceptional circumstances.”

Humpton, who is responsible for approving all travel expenses, said his staff has reviewed the record from previous meetings, and that they have struggled with interpreting the council’s specific wants and needs on this issue.

He said he thought the proposed policy represents the ‘‘best of all worlds,” and that a thoroughly documented system should be available so the public can understand how taxpayer dollars are spent.

‘‘I do believe It’s about accountability, however you guys cut it,” Humpton said. ‘‘Accountability for you, accountability for me. When people come in and look at what I do for the city, I need to come in and be responsible as well.”

Schlichting voiced his opposition to the policy debate during the announcement portion of Monday’s meeting, before consideration of ordinances and resolutions. It’s a time generally set aside for city-related public announcements and personal observations.

Humpton said after the meeting that he plans to bring a revised version of the travel policy to a future council meeting, possibly without the paragraph that stipulates a $50 per diem.