Minneapolis City Council members and their aides used city funding to travel to seven foreign countries and seven U.S. cities last year, where they attended conferences and met with officials on issues ranging from airport noise to urban farming, public markets and diplomacy.
In total, the 10 council members who traveled — three others did not use any city funds to leave the state or country — spent just short of $43,000. That amounts to a fraction of the city’s $1.2 billion annual budget, but individual council members receive a relatively small pot of money to spend at their discretion. They say that means decisions about travel amount to an individual calculation: Where are their time and resources needed most?
Some of those who spent the most on out-of-state or out-of-country travel said connecting with other leaders and experts out of the city is crucial to their work in Minneapolis. Others see spending on local events or mailings to their constituents as a more essential use of their piece of the city’s budget.
“Everyone needs to determine within their own body of work what’s important to them,” said Council Member Lisa Goodman, who spent $6,083 in 2015 on trips to Japan and Ireland for a sister city visit and a conference on diplomacy but typically carries over a budget surplus from year to year for her ward.
By both the number of trips and total spending, the Mayor’s Office has a bigger budget than any individual council member. Last year, Mayor Betsy Hodges made trips to China and the Vatican, along with 21 visits to New York, Washington, D.C., Boston and other U.S. cities. While conference organizers and other groups covered some of the expenses, the city’s total bill amounted to $18,071, which came out of a dedicated travel fund in the Mayor’s Office budget.
Hodges said she intends to travel less in the last two years of her first term but believes her travels helped the city win several grants and raised Minneapolis’ profile on a national level.
Council members don’t get money specifically dedicated for travel. Instead, they get a ward budget of $10,490 each year, which can be used for travel for professional development, memberships to organizations or subscriptions to relevant publications. It can also be used for salaries for interns or additional staff, additional computers, phones or other equipment or furniture for council offices, mileage reimbursement, parking fees, and postage, printing and other costs related to communication with constituents.
If they don’t spend all of one year’s budget, council members can carry over unused funds or put them back in the city’s general fund at the end of their four-year term.
In 2015, no council members spent their full budget on travel, though a handful spent more than half. The top spender was Council Member Alondra Cano, who spent $8,046 on trips to Spain, France, Mexico and Washington, D.C.
Cano said she saw each trip as an opportunity to learn more about issues relevant to her ward and the entire city. In Spain, she attended a conference on public markets. In Mexico, she represented Minneapolis at a sister city event, and in France, she attended the global summit on climate change, where she was joined by other representatives from Minnesota organizations.
Cano said she picked up information on public markets that she hoped would sway others to invest in those facilities in Minneapolis, but so far she hasn’t found enough support. At the Paris conference, she was particularly interested in a session on the role of organized labor in combating climate change, a topic she said resonates in a council ward with a history of heavy industry.
Cano, who has publicly characterized herself as a council outsider, said she sees her travels as a way to connect with like-minded people in a way she sometimes cannot on the council dais.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m limited by some of the mainstream or traditional forms of thinking on the council, so that’s why I gravitate to these opportunities to challenge myself and be connected to a more global conversation on these issues,” she said.
Council members tend to attend conferences and events linked to committees they oversee. Lisa Bender, chairwoman of the Transportation and Public Works Committee, spent $5,289 on trips to Seattle, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, for conferences on planning and progressive policy development. Cam Gordon, chairman of the Health, Environment and Community Engagement Committee, spent $352 to attend a climate change and environmental justice conference in Los Angeles and another $1,971 for his office’s policy aide to attend an urban farm conference in Cuba.
Council Member John Quincy, who spent $6,609 on a sister city visit to China and on government accounting and National League of Cities conferences in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., is chairman of the council’s Ways and Means Committee and also a leader of a national group that focuses on airport noise issues. Quincy said he packs in as many conversations as he can in a single trip, including visits to the offices of lawmakers who focus on transportation or aviation issues.
“That’s the stuff that’s really important,” he said. “It has nothing to do with traveling, but it’s extending the value of the trip.”
Quincy noted that multiple council members from other local cities, including Edina and St. Louis Park, also attended a conference on airport noise in Washington, D.C.
Three council members — Linea Palmisano, Kevin Reich and Abdi Warsame — did not use city funds for travel in 2015.
Palmisano said she spends the biggest chunk of her budget on printing and postage for informational mailings to constituents in her ward. She does some out-of-state business but tries to line it up with personal travels she’s already scheduled. For instance, while in Chicago visiting family, she met with a city alderman about construction waste and recycling, a big topic in her southwest Minneapolis ward.
“To me, the [ward budget] is really to be used on the things people in my ward would value most,” she said. “The way that I judge if something is worth money from that ward budget is that it needs to be worth that time spent versus advocating in City Hall, and versus being in my ward.”