Travel documents provide limited glimpse of council funds

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Nancy Hoffmann

by Eric Ginsburg

After almost two months, some itemized Greensboro City Council travel documents have still not been released to Triad City Beat, but the ones that have illuminate some aspects of where the money is going, and who is spending it.

A limited public-information request Triad City Beat filed with the city of Greensboro on April 28 — seeking itemized documentation of city council spending on trips to Chattanooga, Tenn. and Tampa, Fla. this year — has only been partially fulfilled, as of June 23.

The city of Greensboro did release several Excel spreadsheets of how council members have spent their allotted travel-related funds in recent years to Triad City Beat. Even though the birds-eye view does not enumerate why exactly funds were spent — in some cases just listing “travel reimbursement” or “business lunches” — it does provide a glimpse of where the money is going and which council members are spending it. TCB has filed additional requests for itemized receipts and will continue to look into city council travel expenditures in recent years.

The documents provided list overview expenditures since the 2003-2004 fiscal year. Below, TCB has analyzed the partial information provided for the last three fiscal years, including the current one. Information provided by the city runs through late April 2015. In other words, expenditures for the 2014-15 fiscal year are not yet complete, but can still be useful for comparison between council members, along with and activity in the two preceding years.

Each city council member is given up to $5,356 annually to spend on city-related business; the mayor can spend up to double that amount. The figure jumped up $2,000 per council member for the 2014-15 fiscal year, and consequently climbed $4,000 annually for the mayor.

The money comes from the city’s general fund, and any unused funds return there. City council members sometimes receive an advance or use a city-issued debit card, in which case they are required to submit documentation within 10 business days of returning from the trip, according to new Public Records Administrator Katherine Carter. But if no advance is given or card used, there is no specific rule about how long city council members have to turn in receipts and request reimbursement.

 

Nancy Hoffmann, District 4 (pictured above)

Hoffmann has spent more money ($4,931) in 2014-15 than any other council member. Her biggest expense was a $1,357 “travel settlement” on Nov. 20, 2014, followed by $1,249 to the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 25 of this year. Mayor Nancy Vaughan and now-former councilman Zack Matheny also paid out the same amount to the chamber at that time. That, plus $85 each from Hoffmann and Councilwoman Sharon Hightower later made the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce the biggest recipient of funds so far this fiscal year. TCB has requested documents related to the chamber of commerce, though it appears the cost covers an inter-city trip to Chattanooga, Tenn. Hoffmann couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

A $385 “business luncheon” on Nov. 20, 2012 is listed with no additional information, as is a Sept. 26 ,2014 “travel reimbursement.” TCB has requested itemized documents for both expenses.

Hoffmann has already spent about $400 more this year than last year ($4,534). She routinely participates in council-related trips to other cities, accounting for much of the expenses. She spent less ($3,359) in 2012-13, but $1,199 of that went to the chamber.

 

Zack Matheny, former District 3

Matheny just resigned to accept the job of president and CEO of Downtown Greensboro Inc., but before he did, he spent more money this fiscal year than anyone on council save for Hoffmann and Mayor Nancy Vaughan. The council books its trips through Aladdin Travel, a company with offices in Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Charlotte; Matheny’s money went there more than anywhere else save for the Chamber of Commerce. The Omni Nashville Hotel ranked third this fiscal year for him with $575 (about the same amount Vaughan and Councilman Jamal Fox also spent there).

Matheny was a Top 3 spender for all of the last three years, though the total amount spent fell this year. His biggest 2013-14 expense was $1,600 to the Wyndham Championship on June 13, 2014. Matheny couldn’t immediately be reached for comment to explain the expenditure — he is currently in Disney World with his family. TCB has requested the itemized document.

 

Mayor Nancy Vaughan

As mayor, Vaughan can spend twice as much money as her peers, but percentage-wise she falls in third this year (see chart). Her most interesting year lately is 2012-13, right before she ran for mayor, when her spending was far lower (even adjusted percentagewise). She dropped just $1,347 that year, and practically all of it to the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce at three points. Only $98 of that money went elsewhere — towards an iPad.

 

graphsSharon Hightower, District 1

Hightower is partially responsible for several of the most common recipients ranking highly on the list in 2014-15, including money to the Greensboro Transit Authority for bus passes for residents in need, hundreds to Aladdin Travel and the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, or NFBPA, and the chamber of commerce. The city has not yet provided itemized receipts for Hightower’s trip to the NFBPA’s Tampa, Fla. conference this year, but receipts from Fox and Johnson from the trip followed city rules about maximum meal allowances, spending on cabs, hotels and other items. Hightower has spent $3,170 this year, putting her a hair above Councilman Jamal Fox ($3,106). She joined council in late 2013, and put almost half ($1,000 of $2,262) the money she spent towards bus passes in 2013-14, but dropped the amount this year to $375.

 

Jamal Fox, District 2

The NFBPA cost Fox quite a lot this year, with $495 and $780 going to the organization and $422 to Aladdin Travel for the trip. Hightower and Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson spent similar amounts — the national group received less Greensboro city money in 2013-14 because only Johnson attended that year.

Fox still spent more in 2013-14 than several council members ($3,948) even though he was elected part-way through the year, including $850 he contributed to the non-profit Malachi House just before the fiscal year ended.

 

Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson

Johnson is routinely in the middle of the pack, and spent slightly less so far this year than last. Nearly all of her funds spent last year went towards the NFBPA ($2,386 of $2,789) with almost all of the rest going to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum and the locally based National Conference for Community and Justice ($150 each).

 

Marikay Abuzuaiter, at large

Abuzuaiter regularly spends very little, avoiding council trips out of state. Every year she buys bus passes from the Greensboro Transit Authority (Vaughan and Hightower did the same for the last two fiscal years). This year she gave $750 worth to the Interactive Resource Center and an equal amount to Partners Ending Homelessness, she said. She also gave $500 to Family Services of the Piedmont for its work with the new Family Justice Center, she said. Such nonprofit contributions are allowed, Abuzuaiter and Councilman Tony Wilkins said. Both haven’t traveled much.

“I don’t usually want to go on these out-of-town trips,” she said. “I think it’s fine if people want to go and I’m sure I will in the future.”

 

Tony Wilkins, District 5

Wilkins has spent a mere $305 this fiscal year, and last year he spent just $333. His biggest cost this year — $125 to Guilford College on Oct. 15, 2014 that he doesn’t remember. “It must’ve been a speaker or some kind of event,” he said.

Wilkins, a conservative, isn’t sure council trips to tour other cities or attend conferences are worth the money.

“I maybe would like to visit somewhere like Greenville [SC],” he said. “But you know I don’t know that I’ve heard any ideas on any of those trips.”

But in 2012-13 when Wilkins joined the council, he shelled out $1,372 — more than Vaughan — including $967 to Ontario Investments Inc., a Syracuse, NY-based company that leases computer hardware and software, and $465 on iPads throughout the year.

 

Mike Barber, at large

Barber hasn’t spent a dime this fiscal year so far, at least not that he has sought reimbursement for. Last year he charged just $52, credited to the city-issued debit card but with no listed reason. Council members do turn in detailed receipts that were not covered in TCB’s public-records request. Barber couldn’t be reached for comment.

 

  • Observer

    This kind of stuff is exactly what caused the ruckus that resulted in High Point’s last past manager being “allowed” to retire after demanding accountability from a dept head who ended up with a bonus for dropping legal action claiming stress from being questioned by such demands.
    Now the purchased-peace has resulted in yet another suit as same stressed employee has decided to go back on the agreement and to sue the city again, this time claiming institutionalized municipal racism, even though at least two of the potential defendants are of the same race.
    Guess money really is color blind.