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Cost of Santa Monica City Council Travel Adds Up

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

August 20, 2015 -- Whether embracing a sister city in the shadow of Mt. Fuji in Japan, lobbying federal officials in the nation’s capital or sojourning to Denver to see how other municipalities handle airports that are no longer wanted, travel costs for the Santa Monica City Council are adding up.

Taxpayers often foot the bill, but City officials say the trips and conferences are part of the cost of doing business for Santa Monica – a city they say has been constantly evolving and searching for ways to address its challenges from localities near and far.

“I can see how some taxpayers would say you’re just out there having a good time,” said Council member Tony Vazquez, who last month joined Mayor Kevin McKeown and Council member Sue Himmelrich on a quick trip to Washington D.C. regarding the city’s hotly debated airport.

 “But it’s work,” Vazquez said of the trips and conferences attended by council members, a common practice in cities across the country. “You’re up at 8 a.m., going to workshops and panels all day and networking at night. I find it exhausting.”

According to budget documents, Vazquez was allocated $4,773 in the 2012-2013 fiscal year for travel, then $8,599 the following year and $7,140 in 2014-2015.

Each of the seaside city’s seven council members is allocated $7,268 for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, according to the city’s more than $564 million annual budget.

Next fiscal year, the allocations change again.  Most council members will be allocated $3,089 annually, although travel spending for McKeown is set at $7,414.

McKeown returned home Monday from a week-long trip to Japan as part of a large delegation celebrating the 40th anniversary of Santa Monica’s relationship with its sister city of Fjinomiya.  He said his total bill for reimbursement was $1,561.99.

“As you can tell, I travel frugally,” McKeown said.

The mayor said he paid $864.80 for airfare, another $86.67 for ground travel and around $90 for meals and incidentals, for which the city will reimburse him. He said his lodging cost $510. He said his wife, Genise, accompanied him, but that he paid her expenses.

He said he has a “personal commitment to transparency and responsible stewardship of public funds” and added: “The public has no reason to fear I’m off on extravagant junkets.

“I think you’ll see looking back that except for this year where as Mayor I’ve been called
upon to do more traveling, I’ve been one of the low-ball spenders quite consistently,” he said.

The cost of the July face-off with the Federal Aviation Administration was unknown. McKeown said he was unsure about funding for the trip but said that the cost of his lodging was $330.91 for a room next to Capitol Hill.

“I had to pay when I got there,” the mayor said. “That was not a typical trip. It was direct City business, and I went with the City Attorney and Mayor pro tem on tickets and an itinerary paid for out of other funds, not Council travel funds. The Council travel funds are used for conferences, state and national City League membership meetings, etc.”

Himmelrich, an attorney for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said she has never sought reimbursement for city travel, and doesn’t plan to do so during her tenure.

“I don’t expense anything to the city,” said Himmelrich, who was elected in November.

She said she told McKeown and Vazquez that they could use her travel allocation if it became necessary.

Vazquez said travel has been an essential part of the learning process for him.  A conference in Las Vegas last year focused on the problems associated with cities opening medical marijuana dispensaries.

That came in handy earlier this summer as the council struggled with the issue, and Vazquez warned of the troubles experienced by Santa Ana that he had learned about at the conference. That City used a lottery system to open “pot shops,” and found itself hit with lawsuits, he said.

Much of his travel, Vazquez said, is associated with the League of Cities, both the national and California branches, and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.   International travel by any council member is “rare,” he said.

 On Monday, Mayor Kevin McKeown just returned from a weeklong stay in the Japanese city, one of Santa Monica’s sister cities. A youth soccer team, their chaperones and others acting as representatives of the city made the trip. The big delegation was there to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the relationship between the two cities.

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