Grantville city officials will have to get approval from the city council to travel at city expense, effective July 1, no matter what type of event they will be attending.
The council made the decision at its last meeting, 3 to 1. Councilmembers Jim Sells, Alan Wacaser and Mark King voted in favor of the change. Councilwoman Ruby Hines was against it. Mayor Doug Jewell was also against it.
Sells had the issue placed on the agenda and said citizens should be informed when they’re footing the bill and that the travel policy has been abused.
City Manager Al Grieshaber said the mayor or council members may travel for education and training as long as the elected officials “stay within budget limitations.”
Budget limitations for the mayor are $4,000 for travel and $3,000 for training and education. Budget limitations for council members collectively are $5,000 for travel and $8,000 for training and education.
Grieshaber said once the travel is approved by the council, the city clerk will make the arrangements and payments going forward.
GMA Cost Highlighted
Sells brought up the annual Georgia Municipal Association Convention, which will be held in Savannah the week of June 24. Sells said the trip will cost the city well over $3,000.
Hines and Jewell will be traveling to the conference.
According to open records from the city, Jewell will be staying at the Savannah Marriott Riverfront June 20-25 at a cost of nearly $1,300. Jewell paid $300 of those costs, according to the records.
Hines will be staying at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Savannah for the GMA conference. Hines said she is paying $82 towards the trip and that she and Jewell are city taxpayers, therefore they are also funding their own trips.
“These trips are beneficial to the city,” Hines said.
Hines said the city is spending money on other items the city could have waited to purchase.
“I am going to say this again, we purchased a truck for the recreation department,” Hines said. “We bought a truck just for the recreation director and the truck stayed parked more than it is used. We could have used that truck for the code enforcement.”
The council recently approved the purchase of a truck for code enforcement that cost the city more than $20,000.
Sells said he had no objection to the trip.
“I have absolutely no objection of you going to Savannah,” Sells said. “This was brought about because of abuse.”
Every Five Weeks
Sells said Jewell has taken trips every five weeks at the city’s expense.
Sells said the mayor stays at hotels such as the Ritz Carlton and Hilton. He said the city also has to pay for food and travel expenses, valet parking and housekeeping, which is a financial burden on the city.
“This has been going on for years,” Sells said. “The full council needs to be notified and at some point. It’s ridiculous and the citizens are paying for it. That is what this is about. We need to know what’s going on. This is our money.”
Sells said he would not be making the decision, but “the full council will look at these trips and make a decision.”
“It’s not a problem if it’s not abused,” Sells said. Sells referred to the trips Jewell took to Lake Oconee in November and December as “junkets.”
A “junket” is an extravagant trip or celebration, in particular one enjoyed by a government official at public expense, according to Oxford Dictionaries.
Sells asked Jewell what the trips were for. Jewell said he could not recall, but it was for city business.
According to open records from the city, Jewell did take a trip for city business in November to the Electric Cities of Georgia Annual Meeting. The cost of the hotel was $300 for a one-night stay at the Ritz Carlton.
Jewell also attended the MEAG Power Mayors Summit in December, which cost the city about $765 for lodging. Jewel attended the GMA Mayor’s Day in January in Atlanta. The cost from Jan. 24-28 at the Hilton in Atlanta was approximately $772.
In addition, Jewell attended the Municipal Gas Authority event in May at St. Simons Island. He stayed at the Holiday Inn for approximately $335.
Other receipts for food, gas and car rental were also turned in.
Hines said she has learned some beneficial information for the city by attending events, but the council must work together to implement the new ideas that are learned.
“If we have city council people who for whatever reason, have no desire to attend, they have that right, but we who want to attend and bring back valuable information to the city, we don’t need to go to the council for approval,” Hines said.
She said the classes are rewarding and many people attend the classes. She also said requiring the approval could be seen as discrimination.
“And we don’t want that,” Hines said. “A legacy could be left if the council would work together and be fair. There is nothing wrong with going to these classes. If others are going to these classes, we need to go to these classes, in my humble opinion.”
Wacaser suggested implementing a travel budget for each council member and if any councilmember goes over their set travel budget to then require approval.
“Now does anybody see anything wrong with that?” Wacaser said. “I’m all for everybody going to these meetings. Once the money is used after that, any dime should come before the council.”
Wacaser received an applause from the audience.
King said the conventions and events could be good for the city, but the ideas are never “voiced at the city council (meetings).” He agreed with Wacaser’s idea.
Sells disagreed and said “the abuse needs to stop tonight… that’s my opinion.”
Jewell said citizens are “being painted a picture that's the furthest thing from the truth.”
Jewell confirmed that he did attend such meetings, but he said the organizations decide when and where the event will be held.
“Yes, we do stay in hotels. In my opinion they’re the more expensive ones, but I don’t have a choice in this,” Jewell said.
Jewell said that he also pays the difference out of his pocket and the events are a benefit to the city. He said he has had the opportunity to network with other mayors, the governor, lieutenant governor and other elected officials at such events.
“I owe it to the citizens to learn as much as I can about my position,” Jewell said.
Jewell said he will be taking an ethics, open meeting and a municipal law 2019 update class at the upcoming GMA conference. He said the classes are five hours each.
“You think ethics are important to this city?” Jewell said. “These are not just ‘go and lay out on the beach.’ I think that I’m doing the right thing. These are business meetings.”
Jewell said he personally loses two to three days’ pay during school when attending the events on behalf of the city. Jewell drives a bus for Troup County Schools.
“I just hope y’all have a great time at the height of the vacation season,” Sells said in reference to the upcoming GMA conference.
City of Newnan officials will also be attending the GMA conference, according to
Newnan City Manager Cleatus Phillips.
Phillips said the city places “a very high emphasis on training.”
He said the officials also attend the National League of Cities (NLC) conference.
“I believe we see a high return on that investment,” Phillips said. “We believe our citizens benefit from the educational and training opportunities provided at these conferences. Oftentimes, required certifications such as being a police officer, firefighter, engineer, etc., require a minimum number of continuing education hours per year.”
Phillips said Newnan budgeted $188,429 for training and travel for 2018 and spent $136,290. For 2019, $196,349 is budgeted, and Newnan has spent $46,923 year-to-date.