A Joplin City Council member asked city employees to charge airline tickets and hotel reservations to a city credit card for himself and two members of the Wallace Bajjali Development Partners.
Mike Woolston, councilman and former mayor, on Tuesday said that he transferred the charges to his personal credit card after receiving a message from the city clerk that the transaction was “illegal” and he was to see that the funds were immediately reimbursed.
He said he had the charges and reservations placed on his personal credit card last Thursday after another councilman, Bill Scearce, told him Councilman Benjamin Rosenberg had questioned the transaction.
Woolston said he made the decision to transfer the charges “after Scearce called me either on Wednesday evening or Thursday, and I subsequently I had a call, or received a voice mail, on Thursday from the city clerk about 3:15 p.m. saying the city attorney had instructed her to call me and say that is illegal use of the city credit card, and I needed to get a check from Wallace Bajjali by 5 p.m. that day” to repay the charges.
“I did not say it was illegal,” Head said Tuesday. “I said I think it was inappropriate. I don’t think it’s appropriate to lend the city’s credit to private individuals,” Head said Tuesday.
He said he told the city clerk “If they want to make travel arrangements so they can all fly together, you can, but the charge needs to be on their private credit cards” or by check preferably by the end of the day.
“As I understand it, he changed it Friday, so it was a matter of 24 hours,” Head said.
The Globe filed an open records request on Thursday for City Council and city manager travel expenses and reservations through the end of 2012. The city clerk on Monday acknowledged the request in a letter and said it could take up to two weeks to assemble the documents sought.
Council travel expenses have been an issue since Woolston was elected mayor in April 2010 and asked council members to limit travel. He and council member Morris Glaze have repeatedly questioned fellow council member and current Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean on her travel expenses to meetings of the National League of Cities.
A discussion of the issue took place Monday night at a council work session, with Rosenberg questioning the transaction.
Woolston maintains that he regards members of the Wallace Bajjali firm as city employees and that he was only doing a favor to make the travel arrangements. He regards the questions surrounding the transaction “petty issues” by council members who are jealous of the attention he and City Manager Mark Rohr received over the tornado recovery.
“My real concern is that we not focus on petty issues. I would hope the public understands what I did and know that I didn’t do anything wrong,” Woolston said. “I did not do something other than a courtesy that I would do for any business partner,” such as the Joplin Chamber of Commerce or the Empire District Electric Co., Woolston said, adding that he thinks the public will understand that was his purpose in arranging the travel and not for any gain on his behalf.
Woolston told the Globe he was told by Rohr about three weeks ago that Rohr is to be presented an award in Washington D.C. for the work he has done overseeing Joplin’s recovery from the 2011 tornado.
He said Rohr was to keep the information private until the organization presenting the award announced it on Nov. 1.
Woolston said Rohr invited him to attend the ceremony since Woolston was mayor at the time the deadly tornado hit and the aftermath as recovery efforts began. He also said Rohr had invited four members of the city’s master developer firm, Wallace Bajjali, to attend the event.
Woolston asked the assistant city clerk, Barb Gollhofer, to make travel reservations for himself and for two local representatives of the Wallace firm, Gary Box and Bruce Anderson. Two of the firm’s partners, David Wallace and Costa Bajjali, are to attend, but would make their own travel arrangements from their office in Sugar Land, Texas.
Woolston said he intended only to receive reservations and did not intend for the city to pay the expenses, but by the time questions arose about the transaction, the airline tickets had already been charged to the city card. He said he then delivered his personal card to the city’s finance department to transfer the charges to it.
“We’re paying our own way; the city’s not paying for us,” said Box on Tuesday. He said the intent was to make travel reservations so they were all making the trip together but that the development firm always intended to pay its expenses. He also said that the Wallace Bajjali reservations are not to be charged at a reduced government rate.
Asked if the transaction could be questioned as a misappropriation of city funds, Woolston said, “I could see where somebody could have that concern, but I cannot believe it would be because there have been no city funds dispersed. So the city’s not out anything and won’t be out anything.”
He had no intention for the city to pay any expenses for Wallace Bajjali representatives, he said. “There was never that intention. There has been no intention for a misappropriation.”
In response to Rosenberg’s questions Monday night, Woolston read a prepared statement in which he said that he had canceled the charges on the city card after questions were raised and placed them on his personal credit card. He said he considers members of the Wallace Bajjali firm employees of the city because they have been contracted by the city.
“I hadn’t brought it to the council because we were asked to keep the award private,” and the trip came up in between council meetings, Woolston said.
Scearce, in response to Woolston’s statement, said, “I understand you did it to get the government employee discount” for all of those traveling. He said it is against the law for people to seek a government travel discount for nongovernment employees.
Councilman Jack Golden questioned whether city administrators and the council should keep dealings with Wallace Bajjali at arm’s length.
The firm is a contractor with the city, not an employee, several council members said.
Asked if the arrangement showed that he had not kept the master developer or the city manager at arm’s length, Woolston said, “I can see where people could think we have too close a relationship, but when you have the city manager and a then-mayor that have gone through the seventh worst tornado in the nation’s history with 161 killed and thousands of buildings destroyed, how do you not develop a close relationship when both parties see in the other one they each have the city’s best interests at heart?”
He said he meant only to provide a courtesy for the developers.
“I see it as the same level of relationship as with the city’s other business partners in that we can work together and be on good terms, but just because we work together it’s still at arms length.” He cited Empire District Electric Co. as an example. He said the two entities work together on projects “but we occasionally oppose a rate increase. Just because you work together does not mean you can’t keep them at arms length.”
Councilman Gary Shaw said that any direction to a city employee requires a decision of approval by at least a five-member majority of the council, adding, “Let’s not make this something that’s going to embarrass the city. Mike was trying to be helpful” by making the reservations.
Councilman Michael Seibert said the council needs a policy in place that will allow for matters to be taken care of quickly when such a situation arises.
Rosenberg said rules are needed that are observed by all council members. He said it is the current mayor’s role to attend functions on behalf of the city unless some other arrangement is agreed upon by the panel.
Colbert-Kean said she was criticized by some council members when she asked for reimbursement for an airline ticket she bought to attend a conference or board meeting of the National League of Cities.
She said individual council members often make requests or give direction to the city clerk but on these types of questions, the council should act as a whole, even if a work session has to be called to make a decision.
As for this incident, “It was blown out of proportion but it (the transaction) was done incorrectly,” the mayor said.
Memo of advice
Assistant City Attorney Peter Edwards told the council Monday night that the city attorney, Brian Head, had earlier issued a memo advising the council to adopt a formal travel policy.