Council Budgets Pay for Trips Here and Abroad, Even a $40,000 Transfer to Help the City Library
The City of Austin’s approved budget for the offices of the mayor and council members for the previous fiscal year totaled $2,251,768. That money was appropriated to pay the salaries of 30 full-time employees—seven elected officials and 23 staff members—and cover a host of other expenses, most of which were discretionary.
Aside from the salaries, what did the mayor and council offices spend? And how did Austin taxpayers benefit from these expenditures? These are the questions we set out to explore.
On June 12, 2010, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and his then-communications director Matt Curtis flew to Oklahoma City for the 78th annual U.S. Conference of Mayors convention. The agenda included a full day of forums on subjects ranging from energy efficiency to the high school dropout crisis, followed by a hoedown with live music, barbecue and line dancing, and an after-party at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Leffingwell and Curtis caught a plane back to Austin at 4:20pm the next day, missing the convention’s planned “psychedelic multimedia extravaganza” with rock band The Flaming Lips and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, and a party hosted by former University of Oklahoma and NFL coach Barry Switzer.
The two-day trip cost $3,264 in city funds.
This trip, among others, was detailed in public records obtained by The Austin Bulldog that shed light on where elected officials have traveled and how they’ve spent the money allocated to their offices in the past two fiscal years.
In mid-October of last year, The Austin Bulldog filed the first of several requests under the Texas Public Information Act for records of expenditures incurred for trips taken by Austin City Council members at the city’s expense, and records of equipment or services the City of Austin purchased for any city council members or their offices during fiscal years 2010 and 2011. (Fiscal years begin October 1 and end September 30.) The last of the applicable records were received last week.
Cole packs her bags for South Africa
From Washington, D.C., to Johannesburg, South Africa, the mayor and city council members traveled extensively meeting with federal lawmakers, attending conventions, and touring other cities’ facilities.
The records also reveal which council members are avid travelers—Bill Spellman and his staff went on 13 city-funded trips in two years—and which are not—Mike Martinez flew at taxpayers’ expense only once.
Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole’s office racked up $10,508 in travel expenses in FY 2011—more than the mayor and fellow council members that year.
Her most recent, and costliest, trip was October 9‑21, 2011 to Johannesburg, South Africa. (Most of the expenses for this trip were paid in advance in FY 2011, although the trip was taken in the current fiscal year.) She traveled with the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization composed of 17 members of the Texas House of Representatives committed to addressing issues African Americans face across the state, according to the group’s website.
The plane ticket alone cost $2,062 round trip, plus an extra $320 so Cole could fly on economy comfort seats, which offer more legroom and recline, as well as complimentary beer, spirits and wine on select international flights. She spent $2,827 in city money to stay in luxury hotels including the Table Bay Hotel, The Palace of the Lost City, and The Hilton. The trip cost Austin taxpayers $5,237.
Cole, who is not a member of the caucus but was invited to attend, described the trip as a “trade and economic development mission” in which she visited Johannesburg and Kingstown, South Africa, to meet with high-level South African leaders including the governor of Johannesburg, as well as the U.S. ambassador for South Africa.
The African officials were largely interested in Austin’s expertise in water preservation and climate protection programs, Cole said.
Cole said she and state officials are developing a strategy to bring South African officials to the Texas Legislative Black Caucus conference in Austin to further discuss international policy and trade opportunities.
She also met with local chambers of commerce in Africa to develop business relationships between South African and Austin companies, Cole said.
Cole said she participated in discussions about a possible exchange study abroad program for Austin university students. The University of Texas at Dallas already implemented a program with South Africa, and she hopes to foster similar relationships with Huston-Tillotson University and the University of Texas at Austin.
Leffingwell meets Obama, Pelosi
Leffingwell’s office spent more on travel in fiscal years 2010 and 2011 than any of the council members, with $18,817 in expenses, according to documents the city provided.
It should be noted that the mayor’s office is allotted more money than the council members receive. Leffingwell got $480,749 to maintain his office in FY 2011, including staff salaries and benefits, while each council member got $282,107, according to the approved budget. An additional $78,377 was allocated for administrative costs shared by the mayor and council members and their staff.
Leffingwell and Curtis, his communications director at the time, attended three U.S. Conference of Mayors’ meetings, one of which included meetings with President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and senior White House officials. Curtis also attended a 2011 U.S. Conference of Mayors convention in Baltimore.
Obtaining this kind of access is not cheap: Beyond paying up to $900 in registration fees to attend each of these events, the city pays $26,216 a year for Leffingwell to be a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, according to city documents, a total of $52,432 over the past two fiscal years.
The organization, in which all major Texas cities are members, serves as a unified voice for municipal leaders across the county to advocate for federal policies benefiting cities, according to its website. Leffingwell’s 2011 membership letter stated that this year’s priorities included increasing local transportation funding, reducing unfunded mandates, creating and retaining jobs, and maintaining strong public safety.
Leffingwell did not respond to requests for comment on how the U.S. Conference of Mayors membership and conferences benefit Austin taxpayers.
Spelman travels for crime prevention
Spelman proved to be the most frequent traveler among the city council members. He attended multiple conventions addressing crime prevention issues and spent a total of $11,421 in travel expenses over two years.
Spelman, a University of Texas public affairs professor, has been heavily involved in criminal justice issues for decades. According to his UT biography, when working for the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., Spelman developed and studied police programs aimed at rehabilitating repeat offenders and solving neighborhood crime problems.
Spelman attended two conferences co-hosted by the Police Executive Research Forum on the city’s dime: the Problem-Oriented Policing and Crime Analysis Training Conference in Arlington, and the 20th annual Problem-Oriented Policing Conference at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California.
Spelman said he attended the events to learn more effective ways to catch crooks and prevent crime that could be applied to Austin.
“It’s a longstanding interest of mine. I’ve written a couple of books on the subject, and I think it’s immediately useful for the City of Austin because the city was (using these techniques) about 10 years ago, stopped, and now I’m trying to get them to do it again,” Spelman said. “I’m trying to bring back some information like, ‘Oh let me tell you what they’re doing in Little Rock, Arkansas, that you might not know about.’”
Spelman and his staff also traveled to San Antonio; Denver, Colorado; San Jose, California; Seattle, Washington; and Washington D.C. to attend National League of Cities (NLC) events, three of which included NLC public safety and crime prevention steering committee meetings.
Spelman, who is the city’s NLC delegate and a member of the committee, said he helps the NLC draft a list of new laws and budget items benefiting U.S. cities for Congress to consider.
Just how much his involvement has impacted Austin specifically is unclear, Spelman said, but it does give him an excuse to travel to D.C. and meet with federal lawmakers about items that are important to the city.
“I don’t know what the return-on-investment for my participation of the NLC subcommittee process is,’” Spelman said. “On the other hand, one of the reasons I do it is because it also brings me to Washington a couple of times a year. … I’ve worked with our own lobbyists on the Hill to arrange meetings with members of Congress to say I support the NLC agenda and by the way, here are some very specific things that are on the City of Austin’s legislative agenda.”
In addition to the NLC and police conferences, Spelman drove to Arlington for a Texas Municipal League meeting—he is the city’s TML representative. His policy director, Heidi Gerbracht, flew to North Carolina for the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s 2011 intercity visit.
Chamber trips costly
Two of the council’s biggest group trips over the past two years were traveling for annual “intercity visits” with the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
According to city documents, Mayor Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, and Council Members Chris Riley and Kathie Tovo—a quorum of the city council—along with other Austin officials, registered to attend the chamber’s visit to Charlotte, North Carolina, September 25-27, 2011.
Spelman’s policy director Gerbracht, and Matt Curtis, Leffingwell’s former communications director, also attended.
Michael McGill, Cole’s policy liaison, attended another conference in Charlotte at the same time, sponsored by the International Downtown Association.
The city paid $12,698 for the elected officials and their staff to attend these events.
According to the Austin Chamber of Commerce website, more than 100 Austin delegates traveled to Charlotte to learn “best practices and lessons learned” from one of the fastest growing regions in the nation. Charlotte houses the NASCAR Hall of Fame and several racing teams with research and development operations, similar to what city officials hope to obtain with the Formula One racetrack now under construction in Austin.
Charlotte is also developing a transportation system with streetcar, light rail and commuter rail technologies, something local officials have discussed for years building in Austin.
Cole said the information and data gained from the visit helped her develop Austin’s Comprehensive Plan, urban rail, and other issues related to the city’s growth.
The chamber organizes these trips annually for city officials and business leaders in Central Texas. In 2010, a group traveled to Minneapolis-St. Paul to sit-in on sessions about planning and funding transportation projects and building a vibrant downtown.
Spelman transfers $40,000 to library
Council members spent money in areas other than travel in fiscal years 2010 and 2011. The city paid $78,206 for food during council meetings and other related activities, according to city documents.
Council members also used their budgets to pay for miscellaneous items, such as $375 for mini-refrigerators for Martinez and Leffingwell’s offices, and $233 at Things Remembered for appreciation gifts for Cole’s staff.
Spelman made by far the single biggest expenditure when in September 2011 he transferred $40,000 from his budget to the Austin Public Library. This transfer took place just before the end of the fiscal year. Otherwise this unexpended money would have reverted to the city’s support services fund.
As a UT professor, Spelman is a state employee and Section 40(b) of the Texas Constitution prohibits state employees from being paid a salary to serve as “members of the governing bodies of school districts, cities, towns, or other local governmental districts.” Spelman said he was able to accumulate the excess funds transferred to the library because his office still gets the same amount of money as his fellow council members. In FY 2011 council members drew a salary of $62,795. (That amount was automatically raised to $64,043 when the FY 2012 budget passed, as council pay raises are pegged to the same percentage increases the council approves for rank-and-file city employees, excluding police and firefighters.)
When Spelman heard the Austin Public Library could no longer afford to provide access to online journals, Spelman said, “I thought, well, I have 40,000 bucks. I’ll just buy it.”
Dana McBee, assistant director of Library Support Services, wrote in a September 14 e-mail to Lauren Brumley, financial manager for the City of Austin, that the library would use the money transferred by Spelman to pay for an electronic resource database ($21,366) and electronic, downloadable materials ($18,634).
Leslie Browder, the city’s chief financial officer, posed two options in a September 12 e-mail: Officials commit $40,000 in purchases to Spelman’s budget, noting “We did this once when Laura (Morrison) wished to give some funds to health,” or Spelman brings forward the item at a council meeting amending the 2011 budget. McBee chose the first option.
In addition to the online journals, the purchased electronic publications included hundreds of e-books, from the Twilight series to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s Grill It! cookbook.
Recap of city council expenses
Travel—Most of these expenses came from the council members’ individual office budgets. However, some expenses related to City Council travel were paid out of other budgets, like the city manager’s, and are included in the figures shown below.
*Kathie Tovo took office three months before the end of FY 2011
* Kathie Tovo took office three months before the end of FY 2011
** The Mayor and Council Admin Budget paid for food at council meetings
Other expense highlights
• $48,653 over the past two years to rent copy machines for council offices
• $499 paid to Patricia Sue “Patti” Summerville of Summerville Consulting and Coaching to organize a retreat “planning session” for then-Council Member Randi Shade’s staff
• Council Member Chris Riley purchased the book Parking Management Best Practices for $76, and Cole bought Deal-making for Good: Smart-giving, Significant Living for $6
To see an Excel spreadsheet with the raw data used to prepare this report, click here.
This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help sustain this kind of reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.