Independence may tighten council travel policy

Independence may tighten council travel policy

A new overnight travel policy for Independence council members, which would require a City Council majority to approve future travel expenses, could be approved at tonight’s meeting.

The possible change comes after the city’s management analyst recommended improvements. His report included a review of the current policy as well as council member travel expenses from 2014 to 2018. The audit and finance committee, which consists of Council Members Karen DeLuccie, John Perkins and Scott Roberson, unanimously approved tonight’s resolution for council consideration.

The proposal comes a few months after one council member, Tom Van Camp, came under some public scrutiny over his travel expenses over three years – about $20,000 for 10 trips, several of them to energy-related conferences.

Van Camp maintained his travel costs were legitimate.

In his report, Management Analyst Jordan Ellena noted that travel forms during the period reviewed were accurate, travel costs had been in accordance with city policy and he didn’t identify any “ineligible expenses.” However, he said the current policy is inconsistent with approving council travel and could use more oversight and accountability.

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Only Van Camp, former council members Marcie Gragg and Chris Whiting and mayors Don Reimal and Eileen Weir submitted overnight travel expense reports during the time period reviewed. Weir’s travels over that time totaled about $26,000 over 16 trips.

Under the new policy, the council would have to approve proposed travel and estimated expenses before a trip, and then review and approve any additional expenses submitted.

All travel expenses for council members or staff would be paid out of budgeted travel funds unless an exception is approved by the city manager. Ellena also recommended that council members share information learned with other council members, as such trips “are a privilege, not a right.”

When Van Camp’s travel costs came under scrutiny last year, City Manager Zach Walker said he and many peers refrain from showing any apparent favoritism in signing off on council members’ travel requests. City policies, he said, give broad latitude to what council members consider appropriate for city purposes, and ultimately council members are beholden to the voters.

“When it comes down to it, they’re lay people trying to make (at times) multi-million decisions,” Walker said.

There are budgeted travel amounts for various city departments, Walker said, but the city has no hard cap on council member travel costs.