Glendale council wants to review travel and expense rules after Sammy Chavira’s questionable trips –

7 months ago Comments Off on Glendale council wants to review travel and expense rules after Sammy Chavira’s questionable trips –

Columnist E.J. Montini and reporters Paul Giblin and Craig Harris talk about government officials expensing questionable trips to taxpayers and the lack of accountability in monitoring how they spend taxpayers’ money.

Sammy Chavira’s colleagues on the Glendale City Council said this week they want to strengthen the city’s travel policy following reporting by The Arizona Republic on Chavira’s travel expenses.

The Republic reported that Chavira billed city taxpayers $24,307 for 13 out-of-state trips since taking office in 2013, including trips that have raised questions about whether they were for “clear business needs” as required by city policy.

“We’re going to have to do something,” Mayor Jerry Weiers said in an interview.

Chavira’s expenses included $2,075 for a trip to Washington, D.C., to see his friend Ruben Gallego sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives; $1,933 for another trip to Washington to see Pope Francis; and a combined $3,136 for airline change fees, seat upgrades and baggage fees, according to public records obtained by The Republic.

Chavira, who works as a Phoenix firefighter, also charged Glendale taxpayers $420 on another trip for a seafood dinner in Washington for several Phoenix officials, including two of his supervisors and a supervisor’s spouse.

Vice Mayor Ian Hugh and City Council members Lauren Tolmachoff and Bart Turner told The Republic they expect a formal discussion at a public meeting about improving the city’s travel policy for elected officials.

Councilman Jamie Aldama said a review of travel policies would be timely, and Councilman Ray Malner said more controls should be put in place.

Chavira declined to discuss the matter after a City Council work session Tuesday, his first public appearance at City Hall since returning from another trip to Washington to attend a National League of Cities conference. Chavira previously said in an email that all of the trips he expensed were for legitimate purposes.

RELATED: Chavira running for re-election, could have rematch with Joyce Clark

In all, six Glendale council members traveled to Washington for the conference, which ran March 5-9. Only Weiers had turned in his travel-expense report for the trip by Friday, according to city officials.

Responding to expenses complicated

Glendale’s travel policy dictates that expenditures should be incurred only for “clear business needs” that benefit the city. However, City Council members have wide discretion in determining needs for the city. No one reviews council members’ expenses to ensure they meet the policy.

Determining a response to Chavira’s expenditures is complicated because council members are elected, Weiers said.

“Bottom line: I can’t make another council member report to me and I certainly can’t fire him,” Weiers said.

Weiers and Chavira often find themselves on opposite sides of high-profile issues, including matters that involve the Arizona Coyotes.

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Any council member who believes another violated council guidelines has the option to discuss the matter in front of the entire panel in a closed meeting. Following that, a two-thirds vote in a public meeting is required to determine whether a violation occurred and a second two-thirds vote is required to impose a sanction.

No such private meetings, which are called executive sessions, were on Glendale’s meeting agenda Friday.

Weiers said one option to tighten the travel policy would be to require council members to use personal credit cards, rather than city-issued cards, for all city-related travel.

“If you want to be reimbursed, then you have to provide us with all the information — who, what, when, why, where. If you don’t provide that, then you’re not going to get reimbursed,” he said. “People all of a sudden would quit maybe taking chances on what possibly could be appropriate or not appropriate.”

Public exposure by the media may be the best way to ensure council members take responsibility for their expenditures, Weiers said.

“The kind of stuff that we need happening is for people to know what’s going on and understand it and see it,” Weiers told a reporter.

“We answer to our voters. And if guys like you are doing your job, the voters will do their job. If they don’t know about it, unfortunately, they’re going to keep putting the same people back in office over and over,” he said.

Phoenix officials pay back expensive dinner

While Glendale officials talked about Chavira’s expenditures, Phoenix officials acted on them.

Phoenix officials submitted five checks to Glendale on March 9 to reimburse the city for their portions of the seafood dinner, said Glendale spokeswoman Sue Breding. Further details, including who wrote the checks and the exact amounts of the checks, were not immediately available, she said.

The dinner party included Phoenix Fire Chief Kara Kalkbrenner and Assistant Chief Scott Krushak, plus Kalkbrenner’s husband, Phoenix Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Kevin Kalkbrenner, according to Chavira’s expense report.

Other guests included Phoenix Police Executive Assistant Chief Dave Harvey, Phoenix Councilman Daniel Valenzuela and former Glendale Fire Chief Mark Burdick, who has since resigned and announced his candidacy in the Glendale mayoral race.

‘We owe it to our taxpayers to be as transparent as possible’

Hugh and Tolmachoff said they are confident that the city’s travel policy will be placed on an agenda for review during an upcoming council workshop session. Any council member can request a topic be placed on an agenda for public discussion, but they declined to specify whether they planned to submit a request.

Hugh said he is opposed to granting council members authority to approve or disapprove of each other’s trips.

An open discussion about ways to tighten the travel policy would be productive, he said.

“Once we start bouncing ideas off each other, everyone can start chiming in with input. Maybe nothing will occur and maybe ideas will come forward,” Hugh said.

Council members should be held to at least the same standard as rank-and-file city employees, Tolmachoff said.

“It’s important to show good judgment in everything you do. And I wouldn’t want the council to be able to disregard any existing rules,” she said.

Malner noted that the City Council’s guidelines already detail allowable expenses.

“The policies are in place, but perhaps there’s not enough in terms of the actual control,” he said.

Periodic audits of council members’ expenses would help keep members attuned to existing guidelines, Malner said.

“There’s always the ability, no matter what kind of controls you have in place, for abuse. And a lot of it is a matter of trust and follow-up,” he said.

Turner said he’s interested in reviewing the city’s policy for lost receipts and perhaps capping the amount allowable for reimbursement using lost-receipt forms.

“There’s no transparency around a lost receipt, and I think we owe it to our taxpayers to be as transparent as possible,” Turner said.

Chavira expensed several charges for which he submitted lost-receipt forms. His lost-receipt forms typically were for airline baggage fees, though not all of the charges were for amounts airlines typically charge for baggage fees.

Aldama said a review of travel policies would be appropriate.

“I could support any member wanting to look at our expenditures, and maybe how we can refine those policies we have in place. I have no problem with that at all. I think it would be a great idea, actually,” he said.

Glendale council wants to review travel and expense rules after Sammy Chavira’s questionable trips –

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