The extensive domestic and even international travel logged by Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and 10 of 13 City Council members last year is worth pondering as a study in judgment and priorities in city government.
Nothing suggests that any legal or ethical lines have been crossed, and the cost — $18,071 for Hodges’ trips to the Vatican, China, and 21 visits to New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and other U.S. cities, and about $43,000 total for council members and their aides to visit seven foreign countries and seven U.S. cities — is just a small fraction of the city’s annual $1.2 billion budget. But Minneapolitans have every right to expect council members and the mayor to be accountable for the time and money spent on far-flung conferences and other trips.
The council members paid for their travel out of the $10,490 ward budget each receives annually. Alondra Cano, who spent $8,046 for trips to Spain, Mexico, France and Washington, D.C., was the top-spending traveler. “Sometimes I feel like I’m limited by some of the mainstream or traditional forms of thinking on the council,” Cano told the Star Tribune, “so that’s why I gravitate to these opportunities to challenge myself and be connected to a more global conversation on these issues.”
Cano, in her first term, should certainly feel challenged enough by problems in her ward that she needn’t seek a “more global conversation.”
Indeed, city leaders can better be the center of this global conversation by simply making Minneapolis work more effectively. While Minneapolis is already a model in some areas — and has avoided the worst urban ills plaguing other cities — so much more needs to be done, such as solving the roads and parks impasse between Hodges and the City Council. Or, taking another example from just this week’s news, making much-needed improvements to Cedar Lake’s South Beach.
Reducing travel would not be a panacea. But the vast majority of city residents no doubt would prefer that their already high taxes be spent on known needs — and that their elected representatives use their time wisely. The travel spending just makes it harder to justify the already high tax rates or to convince legislators to prioritize the city’s requests at the State Capitol.
Hodges, who is often the point person to those legislators, undercuts her advocacy for the city when she takes so many trips at taxpayer expense. Wisely, the mayor told the Star Tribune that she plans to do less travel in the remaining two years of her term.
Council Member Lisa Goodman, who spent $6,083 for trips to Japan and Ireland, explained her own thinking this way: “Everyone needs to determine within their own body of work what’s important to them.” But what should be even more determinant is what’s important to council members’ constituents.
Along with Cano and Goodman, eight other council members also spent money on travel last year. Three — Linea Palmisano, Kevin Reich and Abdi Warsame — did not.
“To me, the [ward budget] is really to be used on the things people in my ward would value most,” Palmisano told a reporter.
Most residents value the city’s quality of life and want elected officials to ensure that it is preserved for future generations. They also value efficient government.
At times, city leaders may need to travel out of state or out of the country to inform their decisionmaking on critical issues. But more often, they already know what they need to do, and should focus instead on how to accomplish it.