The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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November 9, 2012

Review of expense records: Joplin City Council's travel expenses top $13,000

There have been no other instances of Joplin City Council members charging travel for others on the city credit card, a Globe examination of council travel records has shown.

After debates over travel expenses and the proper use of the city credit card to book reservations, the council has adopted a new travel policy. It specifies that all trips are to be authorized by a majority council vote before the travel occurs if a council member wants the trip costs to be paid or reimbursed by the city.

Council members also are to use a form, proposed by Councilman Benjamin Rosenberg, to request council authorization for travel. Rosenberg distributed the proposed form to other council members and sought their opinions on it at last Monday’s council meeting. The forms are to be submitted to the city clerk’s office.

Council members may go wherever they wish, but without prior council authorization, it will be at their own expense under the new policy.

Several council members have been at odds for several years over travel expenses.

Councilman Morris Glaze has repeatedly questioned Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean’s expenses. She has attended annual conferences of the National League of Cities and accepted an appointment as a member of the organization’s board, which entails quarterly meetings that involves travel.

Glaze has questioned why she accepted a board position and expected the city to pay those travel expenses, when she did not ask the council before accepting the position if that was something council members would authorize. He also had asked, and she had agreed, to provide council members with a report on what was accomplished at the meetings.

Councilman Mike Woolston, elected mayor in April 2010, immediately asked the council to curtail travel spending.

Woolston suggested then that only two council members at a time attend Missouri Municipal League and National League of Cities meetings and events, rather than all council members. Under council policy, all council members were allowed to attend annual meetings or conventions of those organizations.

Woolston said at the time that City Manager Mark Rohr had ordered all city department heads to reduce spending by 2.5 percent because of reduced revenue from city sales tax collections. Woolston said he expected the council to do the same.

“We have to show the public we are going to live by our own rules,” he said at the time.

Last month, Woolston asked city employees to charge to a city credit card airline tickets and hotel reservations for himself and two members of Wallace Bajjali Development Partners, the city’s master development firm. They are to attend an awards ceremony Thursday in Washington, D.C., where the city manager is to be recognized by a publication on government for his leadership in the tornado recovery.

That transaction was questioned by City Attorney Brian Head, who said he told the city clerk to notify Woolston that charges for people who are not city employees or officials had to be taken off the city card.

Woolston transferred the charges to his personal credit card. Wallace-Bajjali representatives always intended to pay their own expenses, company officials said.

As a result, the Globe filed an open-records request for the travel expenses of the council and the city manager since Jan. 1, 2011. Total travel expenses for the council have been $13,611.66.

The records show that flights Woolston had booked on the card for himself and for Wallace-Bajjali employees Gary Box and Bruce Anderson amounted to $1,431.60. A hotel reservation at a cost of $278.24 was booked at the JW Marriott in Washington. All of those charges have been transferred to Woolston’s credit card, according to the records, and there were no other such transactions by any member of the council.

During the council discussion last week about the travel policy, Councilman Gary Shaw suggested that the council authorize Woolston’s sole expenses for the Washington trip since Woolston was mayor at the time of the tornado and worked with Rohr in the recovery. Woolston declined, saying: “I’m not going to ask for that.”

Colbert-Kean said she plans to attend as mayor to represent Joplin and in support of Rohr even though she apparently was unaware that Woolston and the others had been invited by Rohr to attend.

The travel records show that Woolston has spent $1,850.71 since January 2011. Of that, $1,183.12 was for an annual trip May 10-12, 2011, usually made by Joplin’s mayor and economic development leaders to confer with Washington, D.C., lobbyists, federal agencies and the congressional delegation. The remainder was spent mostly on fees to attend events of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.

Colbert-Kean’s expenses in the same time period have amounted to $9,302.20.

Those include five trips to National League of Cities conferences and board meetings, most of them to Washington, D.C. She made four trips to Missouri Municipal League (MML) conferences in Jefferson City and Lake of the Ozarks. She also has traveled on behalf of Joplin’s post-tornado recognition at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York, and the Mid-America Emmy Awards in Kansas City.

“We do need one, and it is something we will all abide by,” Colbert-Kean said of the travel policy.

As for her amount of expenses, she said, “I just hope people can see you can’t sit and not go and learn things that help your city.’’

This year’s council budget allocates $7,000 for travel and $4,000 for conferences for the council.

“The money is set aside for conferences and travel,” Colbert-Kean said. “I’m trying to be the best representative I can be on council. In my eyes, it helps me be a more effective leader and be in direct contact with state and federal officials,” to help other city officials maintain those relationships.

“If we did not have that at the time of the tornado, we would have had a fiasco,” she said.

Glaze, when asked for his response, said, “I’m glad we have a travel policy in place that requires a council vote prior to any council member taking a trip. That’s all I ever asked for, is a vote. If the majority decides it’s OK, then so be it.”

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